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Source: U.S. Wheat & Barley Scab Initiative news release

Like wheat, barley production faces threats from a myriad of diseases - one of the most important being Fusarium Head Blight (FHB), or scab. Since the early 1990s, scab has inflicted billions of dollars in damages to U.S. wheat and barley crops by causing lower yields and test weights and by triggering formation of a mycotoxin known as DON.

Above a certain level, DON can make barley unhealthy for direct human or animal consumption and likewise can make it unsuitable for malting and brewing purposes.

That's why barley has been part and parcel of the U.S. Wheat & Barley Scab Initiative (USWBSI) since the group's establishment in the latter 1990s. Through funding support and information exchange venues, the USWBSI provides substantial assistance to barley researchers as they combat scab via the development of cultivars with higher levels of resistance to this disease.

While there are, as yet, no barley varieties that can be considered "highly resistant" to scab, progress definitely has been - and is being - made.

In 2010, for instance, the University of Minnesota released a new six-rowed barley variety called "Quest," which is significantly more resistant to scab and DON accumulation, compared to most other Upper Midwest barley varieties. And North Dakota State University has released a two-rowed malting barley variety, "Conlon," that accumulates less DON than any other currently malting-approved variety.

University of Minnesota barley breeder Kevin Smith says one of his program's main priorities is to develop and test methods that improve the efficiency of breeding barley with lower DON, high yield and acceptable malting quality. His work is intertwined with research conducted by other scientists in the U.S. Wheat & Barley Scab Initiative, such as UM cereal plant pathologist Brian Steffenson and UM molecular geneticist Gary Muehlbauer, as well as North Dakota State University barley breeder Richard Horsley.

All four of these scientists emphasize that the financial support provided by the U.S. Wheat & Barley Scab Initiative has been integral to the progress made by their respective programs in the development of enhanced scab resistance. "We have invested a lot of resources into FHB/DON breeding because this is an important disease in our region," Smith states.

NDSU's Horsley says that a key challenge when developing a malting barley variety with improved FHB resistance is "making sure that the variety also has agronomics acceptable to the producer and the malt quality acceptable to the maltster."

Much of the resistance used by the NDSU and Minnesota breeding programs originates from Chinese sources of resistance that are agronomically unsuitable for the Upper Midwest. That reality can add several years to the already-long process of developing a new malting barley variety acceptable for release to producers.

"Finding the potential variety that has improved FHB resistance - and acceptable agronomic performance and malt quality - is a 'numbers game,' " Horsley observes. "To identify variety candidates, we had to increase the size of our breeding program, which would have been extremely difficult without the USWBSI funding."

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