Genetic determinants of plant bioactive production - informing crop breeding for health

Lead Research Organisation: University of Aberdeen
Department Name: Rowett Institute of Nutrition and Health


The human diet has changed dramatically in terms of consumption habits. Worldwide, there is a trend towards more calorie-rich resource intensive food products. This needs to be addressed at a national level, as agricultural practices differ and changing consumer preferences requires engaging across the food supply system as well as cultural and societal considerations. It is well accepted that increasing the consumption of plant-based foods in the diet is a strategic target to improve human health. There is also an opportunity to address environmental pressures if the crops selected are agriculturally and economically viable. In the UK cereals account for approximately 12% of the agricultural sector share and enormous benefits have been achieved through plant breeding strategies. It is now more important than ever that these benefits are maximised and crops, particularly those in the early stages of increased usage in the human diet are optimised for nutrition benefit. Over 300,000 hectares of barley are grown in Scotland each year producing around 1.9 million tonnes of grain, of which 35% goes into malting and 55% is used for animal feed. Barley is a rich source of beta-glucan, an important soluble fibre dietary fibre with FDA and EFSA approved health claims for a range of conditions. Consumption of 3g of beta-glucan per day has been shown to reduce/lower blood cholesterol. Barley also contains insoluble fibre, which benefits gut health. Research at the Rowett Institute has shown that barley is also a rich source of bioactive phytochemicals, many of which have been shown to have anti-inflammatory properties. Increasing barley consumption in the diet could contribute toward reducing the burden of diet-associated disease, benefiting both metabolic and gut health. It could also provide opportunities for growers, producers and food processors. Research at the James Hutton Institute (JHI) has been successful in identifying genes that control a broad range of phenotypic traits in barley, resulting in significant crop improvement from an agricultural perspective. Combining the expertise in plant breeding and genomics (JHI) with nutrition and health (Rowett), this project will identify barley accessions that have health-promoting traits. This research would facilitate the development of elite barley germplasm, which would meet the increased demands of the food supply chain, but also have the added value of contributing towards a novel understanding of the genes responsible for the production of important plant bioactives. Barley germplasm which have been identified to be high in beta-glucan will be comprehensively screened for their nutrition content (protein, soluble, insoluble fibre) and using targeted LC-MS and extensive range of bioactive phytochemicals (approximately 300). This phenotypic data will be paired with exome capture data. Using a multi-variate systems biology approach the genetic associations and network interactions responsible for the production of these compounds will be explored. This will provide new knowledge regarding the production of bioactives in crops. The line considered to be of most interest in terms of increased beta-glucan, fibre and important bioactives will be evaluated (against a conventional and commercially available barley product) in an adequately powered dietary randomised human intervention to assess whether these enhanced breeding traits are translated into potential health benefits.


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Studentship Projects

Project Reference Relationship Related To Start End Student Name
BB/M010996/1 01/10/2015 30/09/2023
1942736 Studentship BB/M010996/1 01/10/2017 30/09/2021 Olivia Watt