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Gluten-Free and Growing: The Oat Genome’s Global Impact

With its long stem and small, cocoon-like structures, the oat holds complicated grains that supplement diets and, in some countries, support ecosystems and economies. But the oat doesn’t just provide prosperity to millions of people; it also holds the key to a wealth of health benefits without triggering allergies compared to other cereals such as wheat or rye.

Recognizing the breeding implications, an international team of interdisciplinary researchers set out to map the oat’s complete genetic sequence. After six years of decoding and investigating, BYU Plant and Wildlife Science professors Rick Jellen and Jeff Maughan, along with a team of researchers from five countries, successfully sequenced the complex oat genome. Their findings are published in the June 2022 cover article in Nature.

With its mosaic-like architecture, this reference genome and the associated resources that are now available empower researchers and breeders with the essential genetic information necessary to develop more resilient oat varieties with enhanced nutritional properties, functionalities, and sustainability. In addition, the oat genome unlocks the distinct health benefits of this cereal crop.

Maturing oat panicles in a Swedish field
Photo by Professor Olof Olsson

Intrigued with oat’s complex genetic composition and nutritional benefits, Jellen has dedicated much of his career researching the cereal grain to improve global nutrition. He notes that barley, rye, and wheat contain high amounts of gluten—preventing those with gluten intolerances or celiac disease from gaining necessary nutrients. Oats can also help lower cholesterol, making them the optimal crop for vulnerable populations.

Oats are not just building blocks for the body’s nutrients; they also have a low carbon footprint and the potential to replace animal-based products. Compared to other cereals, oat cultivation requires fewer treatments with insecticides, fungicides, or fertilizers.

Through their unique benefits, oats help supplement the diet of Northern European populations. “In Finland, Sweden, and Norway . . . oat has always been an important crop," Jellen says. "But because they’re farther away from the equator, it’s a cooler environment.” For the plant to survive in such cold conditions, scientists from over thirty countries need to continue to adjust the oat’s genome. Modifying such a complex genetic system requires a greater understanding of the genome’s ancestors.  

When international scientists asked Maughan and Jellen to determine the oats’ ancestors, the two genetic researchers were eager to take on the task. “We helped them understand how the genome is comprised and provided the genomes of the ancestral species,” Maughan says. “It would be like saying, ‘I have your parents’ DNA; I can understand what genes you have.’ That’s what we did: we provided them with the genomes of the ancestral species.”

One essential trait the researchers needed to pinpoint was the oat’s wax content: a characteristic that, if changed, could help the crop exist in extreme climates. “Right now, we have a specific gene that can be targeted for manipulation to increase the plant’s ability to withstand drought,” Maughan says. That way, oats can survive in extreme climates, increase their overall crop output, and ultimately feed millions across the world.

When reflecting on the research process, Maughan and Jellen note how remarkable it was to work with international scientists on such an important project. “We’re now part of an international genome consortium . . . which includes twenty countries,” Maughan says.  

Jellen also notes how working these researchers connects BYU students to global opportunities. “Through these kinds of collaborations, we’re able to send our students internationally,” he says. “We currently have two students at King Abdullah University in Saudi Arabia.” 

After working with BYU students, Saudi Arabian researchers now want more students to collaborate with them on sequencing quinoa as well. BYU College of Life Sciences’ ancestral sequencing technology is ready to improve global nutrition, one crop at a time.  

The international research team worked under the leadership of Lund University, the ScanOats Industrial Research Center, and Helmholtz Munich.

Photo of Dr. Jellen and Dr. Maughan

About the BYU researchers:  

Rick Jellen: Jellen has researched the oat genome for thirty-five years and helped head the ancestral sequencing project at BYU. After graduating from BYU in 1986, he went to continue his master’s work at the University of Minnesota. In 1996, he started his work as a genetics professor in the BYU Department of Plant and Wildlife Sciences (PWS). He served as the PWS Department Chair from 2012-2015 and, since 2015, has served as one of the college’s associate deans. 

Jeff Maughan: Maughan has also worked with Jellen to head the oat ancestral sequencing project. He received a bachelor’s in agronomy from BYU (1990), a master’s in agronomy from BYU (1991), and a Ph.D. in molecular genetics from Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University (1994). He has helped the accelerated breeding of orphan crops with quinoa, ocra, amartha, as well as oats. Maughan worked for five years at the Monsanto Company as a project lead for technology development and then as director of their High Throughput Genotyping Laboratory in Ankeny, IA. He currently serves on the editorial board for the Botanical Society of America’s Applications in Plant Sciences.