Oats have a lot going for them—they're high in protein, oat fibre is proven to lower cholesterol, and oats contain high levels of unique antioxidants that can also help to protect against cardiovascular disease. And oatmeal, of course, is one of the original comfort foods.
As Dr. Nick Tinker, Research Scientist at Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada (AAFC) in Ottawa points out, oats also contribute to our economic health. "It's not well-known, but Canada is the second-largest producer of oats in the world," says Dr. Tinker. "And we are the single-biggest exporter of oats, worth hundreds-of-millions of dollars a year."
Understandably, Canadian oat producers want to maintain their competitive position. They are constantly looking for new, higher-yielding varieties of oats that are also more resistant to disease and—considering the potential impacts of climate change—also able to thrive in a variety of environmental conditions.
While they occupy a sizable niche, oats are not in the same economic league as some other crops, and oat-breeding programs have not always attracted the same interest as those of crops such as wheat, soy beans and canola. In the words of Bruce Roskens, Director of Crop Science at Grain Millers, Inc. in Minnesota—and who is familiar with Dr. Tinker's research—"In spite of their great qualities, oats are the Rodney Dangerfield of crops—they don't get a lot of respect. But thanks to the efforts of people like Nick, that's changing in a big way."
Canada leads international effort
Nick—Dr. Tinker—with a colleague from the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA), co-led a major international research project called the Collaborative Oat Research Enterprise, or CORE.
With the support of the Government of Canada's Genomics Research and Development Initiative (GRDI), the USDA, and private sector partners such as the North American Millers Association (of which Mr. Roskens' Grain Millers is a member) and Canada's Prairie Oat Growers Association, CORE has brought oat-breeding technologies well into the 21st century.
Not always easy to work with
While oat breeders have benefitted from the development of genetic tools such as marker-assisted selection, their usefulness has been limited by the nature of oats. "The oat genome is very big and complex, and until very recently, relatively few genetic markers for desirable traits had been identified," says Dr. Tinker. "So, even with marker-assisted selection, there was still a lot of expensive trial-and-error involved in breeding programs."
To address that problem, Dr. Tinker, with his team at AAFC and his collaborators in the US and elsewhere, applied a relatively new technology called genotyping-by-sequencing, or GBS.
Reduces guesswork and cost
"Rather than try to sequence the entire genome, with GBS, we chop up the DNA from each variety using a set of special enzymes that always cut in the same place," says Dr. Tinker. "After that, we sequence all of the pieces that are a certain length. That gives us a DNA sequence of a specific and repeatable part of the genome and with that, we've been able to identify a large number of genetic markers linked to various traits throughout the genome of any variety of oats we look at. We can also map each of these markers to one of the 21 oat chromosomes."
The bottom line? Instead of tests that would pick out only a handful of genetic markers, oat breeders now have a test that identifies tens of thousands of markers, at a cost of just $20 per variety.
Since it is relatively inexpensive, the GBS approach can be applied to many oat varieties. "We have collaborators in other countries sending us varieties of oats that we sequence using GBS, and add to our database," says Dr. Tinker. "We've also developed the bioinformatics capacity—the computer power and software—that allows us to analyse these sequences, enabling breeders to select crosses with a much higher probability of success."
Respecting oat ancestors
Dr. Tinker and his team at AAFC are now using GBS to analyze the genomes of wild oats, the ancestors of today's cultivated varieties. "A wild oat variety will have a few traits that we want, but many traits that we don't want. For example, we could identify one with a gene that produces higher fibre and thus better cholesterol-reducing qualities," says Dr. Tinker. "The trick, of course, is to develop the tools that would enable us to breed just that one trait into a cultivated variety."
It's part of a new respect for oats, which includes the launch of a new international collaboration through a program called Oat Global, based directly on the success of CORE, and focused on encouraging continued international collaboration in oat research.