Adding fusarium gene to barley may cause backlash

The fight against fusarium head blight could be won with genetically modified plants. 


“Conventional breeding is not going to stop, but I believe we can layer on some additional benefits with a transgenic approach,” said Phil Breigtzer of the U.S. Department of Agriculture, who is one of the few researchers working on fusarium resistant barley. 


He told the Western Barley Growers Association’s annual meeting held in Calgary Feb. 13-14 that disease resistance could be achieved by inserting an extra gene from the fusarium genome into barley DNA.


However, it would have to be done without sacrificing yield or malting qualities. 


A plant could be created in two years, but an actual variety is a long way from commercialization. 


The complicated RNA interference process could be a huge boon to farmers, but consumers may resist GM beer. 


“Consumers don’t know it, but delivering a product with lower mycotoxin levels is of great benefit to them,” Breigtzer said. 


Beer made from fusarium infected barley can produce too much foam, as well as harmful mycotoxins. 


RNAi technology can shut down dangerous fusarium genes and hopefully make the fungus less infectious.


The fusarium genome has been sequenced, and scientists have isolated the genes responsible for producing mycotoxins. 


Other research programs using the same technology have been able to incorporate powdery mildew resistance into wheat and barley and make tobacco resistant to a fusarium specific to that crop.


“The proofs of concept are out there,” Breigtzer said.


There are potential problems with the RNAi process, including the possibility that transferred genes could become mixed up or have only partial copies because genomes are always in flux. 


The trick in transference is to find specific enzymes present at the ends of segments, which then make them easier to move.


The greater challenge, however, is contending with regulators, who may reject the plants. 


Speakers at the barley growers’ meeting agreed that limited money is available in Canada for barley research. Available funds are spread around to develop new varieties that yield more, have better agronomic properties or produce better malting qualities, as well as offer disease resistance. 


Most new barley varieties come out of a few public breeding programs funded with government money or farmer contributions through checkoffs.