Most of the oats American milling companies use comes from Canada -- that's something South Dakota State University oats breeder Melanie Caffé-Treml wants to change. Her research seeks to increase the quality of locally-grown oats.
Through a two-year, $150,000 grant from the U.S. Department of Agriculture, she and her collaborators are developing ways to improve the nutritional and milling quality of new oat varieties. She works with associate plant science professors Jixiang Wu and Jose Gonzalez, as well as cereals chemist professor Padu Krishnan.
Last year, South Dakota was the No. 2 oats producer in the nation, Caffé-Treml explained. The state's farmers produced 12.3 million bushels of oats, according to the USDA 2015 Small Grains Summary.
"This is a fine crop to work with because it can be used either as a healthy food ingredient or livestock feed," she said. Oats requires fewer inputs than other crops and when integrated into a corn-soybean rotation, oats can improve soil health and break pest cycles.
Less than 5 percent of the oats produced in this country is used as food, according to the Center for New Crops and Plants Products at Purdue University.
Using genetic markers to identify desired traits
The researchers are developing methods to speed up selection of breeding material. "We are developing genomic selection models," Caffé-Treml explained.
The researchers are developing models to predict milling and nutritional quality based on genetic markers through collaboration with research geneticist Shiaoman Chao of the USDA Agricultural Research Service in Fargo, North Dakota, Jean-Luc Jannink at the USDA-ARS in Ithaca, New York, and scientists at a laboratory in Canada.
For instance, the hull must be easily removed for milling and the oat variety should yield a high percentage of kernels, known as groat, Caffé-Treml explained. In addition to yield, the test weight is very important," she noted. "Millers want a 38 test weight. If it's higher, it's better. If it's lower, then the price is docked."
During the two-year project, the researchers will genotype and test 450 lines of oats at four locations -- Volga, Winner, South Shore and Beresford. The resulting model will be used to predict the phenotype, the way in which those traits will be expressed within the plant, for untested breeding lines based on their genotype, or DNA makeup. One graduate student and several undergraduates work on this project.
Focusing on nutrition
In terms of nutritional quality, the team will also look at using near infrared reflectance spectrometry to determine the beta-glucan content of individual seeds. Beta-glucan is the soluble fiber in oats that helps decrease blood cholesterol levels.
For this portion of the project, the SDSU researchers are working with scientists at a USDA lab in Kansas. "Developing a calibration for beta-glucan on single kernels will be challenging, but it's worth trying," Caffé-Treml said.
"By segregating those seeds with higher beta-glucan content, we can remove those least likely to perform well at an earlier stage," she explained. "That allows us to focus more on evaluating those with the highest chance of performing well -- that's more efficient."
Comparing the performance of the higher beta-glucan lines with those that have not been sorted will indicate whether this selection process will help increase the nutritional value of oat varieties.
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