Researchers at Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada's Cereal Research Centre in Winnipeg are developing a test that allows plant breeders to quickly select cereal germplasm with high levels of beta-glucans, the cell wall plant components that have been shown to reduce the risk of heartdisease in humans.
Health-conscious consumers are the target of a new study toward a faster, more accurate test for beta-glucan levels in oats and barley.
"There is a growing consumer awareness of the nutritional content of foods and an increasingdemand for healthy food," said lead researcher Dr Christof Rampitsch. "Thiscreates opportunities to develop new crop varieties enriched in nutraceuticals."
A major obstacle toward this goal is the lack of a rapid screening assay forplant breeders to use early on in the selection process, he continued.
During the three year Canadian study, researchers aim to develop an enzyme-linked immunosorbent assay (ELISA) to fill this need.
"This assay would be ideal as it is rapid, inexpensive and reliable, and could replace expensive and cumbersome tests currentlyused," Dr Rampitsch added.
According to the researchers, an improved test is essential for plant breeders to tailor beta-glucan levels for different markets. For example, while highbeta glucan levels add value to food cereals, in malting barley theyinterfere with the brewing process.
"Producers need high quality food oatand barley, and malting barley varieties to maintain premium markets," saidDr Rampitsch.
"An improved beta-glucan test would bring superior varieties tothe field more quickly."
Health-conscious consumers have a growing appetite for soluble fibre from oat bran and other oat products, and increasingly from barley products, to reduce serum cholesterol levels. According to the researchers major oatprocessors such as General Mills and Quaker Oats have stated that improvedbeta-glucan levels in Canadian oats would significantly improve theirmarketing efforts. At the same time, low prices for milling wheat and forfeed barley have led to a marked expansion in oat production for US foodmarkets, and in barley production for domestic maltsters and export markets.
Considering these trends, the ELISA would be a timely addition to Canada'splant breeding arsenal, Dr Rampitsch stressed.
The simple test shows a colour change inproportion to the amount of beta-glucan in a sample. To build this test foruse in cereals, the researchers must develop a monoclonal antibody directedagainst specific beta glucan components.
"Preliminary research with polyclonal antibodies show promising results under laboratory conditions," said Dr Rampitsch.
The new study will further develop the system, with an emphasis on making it as accurate and easy touse as possible. The ELISA has potential to assay hundreds to thousands ofseeds per day, allowing cereal breeders to evaluate a much broader range ofplant material.
The study received funding from the Western Grains Research Foundation.