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Researchers work in a barley field on the St. Paul campus.

For over a century, the University of Minnesota has been researching barley and has contributed 18 new varieties. A 1992 study estimated that two-thirds of all barley used for malting in beer production was developed by U researchers.

Raising the barley

By Lana Olson

May 12, 2006

When Charla Hollingsworth opens a can of cold, unshaken Minnesota-brewed beer, she knows the contents won't foam over the can. "Foaming, or 'gushing' of cold, unshaken beer is a sign of a mycotoxin contaminant resulting from Fusarium head blight, a plant disease in barley that Minnesota's brewing industry has a near-zero tolerance for," says Hollingsworth, a University of Minnesota assistant professor in plant pathology.

Raising barley that results in more enjoyable beer is just one of the possible outcomes from a University of Minnesota-led, 30-scientist consortium that is exploring methods to produce higher yielding, higher quality, and disease-resistant barley. The USDA is giving a total of $5 million to 19 institutions for the project, and the U will receive just under $2 million.

"The selection of the University of Minnesota as the lead institution for this national program is a reflection on the University's national leadership in developing plants that improve the economy and have the potential to improve the health of people," says Beverly Durgan, dean and director of the University of Minnesota Extension Service.

For more than a century, the University of Minnesota has been researching barley and has contributed 18 new varieties. A 1992 study estimated that two-thirds of all barley used for malting in beer production was developed by U researchers. "Some of the most important varieties grown in the United States were developed at the University of Minnesota," says Gary Muehlbauer, associate professor and project director of the new USDA funded research.

In 2005, Minnesota farmers grew and sold approximately $11 million of barley, down from $54 million in 1990.

Barley production in Minnesota stumbled in the 1990s when Fusarium head blight, also known as scab, accounted for more than $1 billion in losses to farmers. As Durgan explains, "Barley acreage and production has decreased every year for the last ten years due in part to Fusarium head blight. In 2005, Minnesota farmers grew and sold approximately $11 million of barley, down from $54 million in 1990. This national research project the University is leading will discover new ways to solve this and other troubling production problems. That would be a boost for farmers and the economy in northwestern Minnesota."

Scab infects the head of a barley plant and then produces several mycotoxins including one called deoxynivalenol or DON. The brewing companies will not use barley if it contains one part per million of DON, forcing farmers to sell the infected grain at a discounted livestock feed price. The end result is a loss for barley farmers because the price of malting barley is much higher than feed barley. With the new research collaboration with the USDA, researchers plan to identify the important genetic traits of barley in order to develop new varieties that will make fusarium head blight an issue of the past.

University of Minnesota Moment

Hear Gary Muehlbauer discuss the University of Minnesota's new $2 million grant for barley research.

This research could also maximize barley's potential in the push for consumers to eat three servings of whole grains daily. "Barley, as a whole grain, is a great source of beta-glucan soluble fiber which is linked to a reduction in coronary heart disease, and weight for weight, barley is lower in calories and fat and higher in total dietary fiber than whole grain oats", says Len Marquart, food science and nutrition professor.

Developing a new, disease resistant variety of barley is part of the University's commitment to promote healthier, safer foods and enhance our agricultural systems.