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As the Entire Oat Genome Is Sequenced, Unique Health Benefits Are Revealed

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Researchers have succeeded in sequencing and characterizing the entire genome of oat. Compared to other cereals and humans, the oat genome architecture is very complex. An international research team under the leadership of Lund University, the ScanOats Industrial Research Center and Helmholtz Munich finally elucidated at the genetic level why oats are healthier and cause fewer allergies and intolerances compared to other cereals.

"Oats are not only an increasingly popular cereal, but also a very complicated one, genetically" says Nick Sirijovski from Lund University and ScanOats, now employed at Oatly. The team of researchers from five different countries spent six years decoding and investigating the oat genome, and identified the entire set of genes contained in this important cereal. The complexity of the oat genome is a result of its size and structure: common oat is what is known as a hexaploid and has six sets of chromosomes with more than 80,000 genes combined, while humans have only two sets of chromosomes with about 20,000 genes. Moreover, the order of genes along the chromosomes is substantially less “sorted” than in other cereals with a considerable amount of genes having been relocated between the chromosomes, resulting in a mosaic-like genome architecture.

Tracking down the health benefits of oats

Knowing the genome sequence allows us to better understand which genes are responsible for which traits. In the case of oats, the researchers were particularly interested in finding out why oat products trigger fewer allergies and intolerances compared to other cereals such as wheat or rye. They discovered that oats have fewer of the proteins that correspond to gluten in wheat. Since these proteins are directly related to celiac disease and wheat intolerances, oats lead to fewer intolerances in humans. "This allowed us to confirm on a genomic level that oats are suitable for a gluten-free diet," says Manuel Spannagl from Helmholtz Munich. Compared to other cereals, oats also contain a much higher proportion of so-called beta-glucans. These dietary fibers reduce blood cholesterol levels and have a positive effect on people with metabolic diseases such as type 2 diabetes. Thanks to their sequencing effort, the researchers could identify the genes involved in the synthesis of the health-promoting beta-glucans.

New potential for breeding

Oats are not only interesting because of their innate health benefits; their cultivation also requires fewer treatments with insecticides, fungicides and fertilizers compared to other cereals. Thanks to the new insights into the oat genome, breeding and cultivation of more nutritious and sustainable oats can now be accelerated. "We have created freely available resources that increase the potential of targeted breeding in oats, and we are now able to tell which oat varieties are compatible with another," says Nadia Kamal of Helmholtz Munich.

’’We are now able to identify specific genes responsible for specific phenotypes in oat, as we did for an agronomic trait related to water use efficiency,’’ says Nikos Tsardakas Renhuldt of Lund University and ScanOats. The researchers have demonstrated the utility of the genome which further opens the possibility of combining traits for even more favorable health profiles, higher yields, better resistance to disease and drought, and most importantly, in preparation for climate change. Since oats produce high yields even on marginal soils and have an overall smaller environmental footprint than wheat, these aspects are particularly exciting for researchers in light of future challenges in providing nutritious plant-based alternative foods for a growing global population in a sustainable way.

Reference: Kamal N, Tsardakas Renhuldt N, Bentzer J, et al. The mosaic oat genome gives insights into a uniquely healthy cereal crop. Nature. 2022. doi: 10.1038/s41586-022-04732-y.

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