Meet a barley scientist

Date posted: 13 November 2013

For this week’s blog we decided to ‘ask an expert’. We tracked down Associate Professor Rachel Burton, Chief Investigator at the ARC Centre of Excellence in Plant Cell Walls, University of Adelaide, and asked her a few questions about barley...  

What is your favourite fact about a barley plant? 

I like barley because it is so versatile; its grains can be used to make beer, soups, breads, mars bars AND Milo – how cool is that?!

Tell us about your barley research?  

I work as a barley molecular biologist and investigate the millions of little cells in a plant and what’s in them, specifically the DNA and genes (these are like an instruction manual for how the plant grows and develops). 

Did you know there are around 30,000 genes in barley but humans only have about 20,000! My main job is to find out more about the genes involved in cell wall development.  

Why is the cell wall important?  

The cell wall not only holds the cell together but it gives the plant its strength. It also acts as a barrier, controlling what goes in and goes out of the cell (water or sugar, for example). Not much is understood about cell walls, so my area of research is new and exciting.  

Tell us something interesting about cell walls...  

The cell wall of barley is very nutritious.  It contains a special form of dietary fibre called beta-glucan, which has many health benefits for both humans and animals who also enjoy eating barley.  

Food processors need to understand more about beta-glucan – humans need high levels to help keep their digestive tract healthy but chickens can’t have too much or they get sticky poo!  

What has been the highlight of your career? 

So far it was finding out which genes make beta-glucan – it took around 14 years of research to make this discovery! 

Why is barley so good for you?  

Barley, and other cereals, is packed with valuable nutrients and fibre. Fibre from barley dissolves in your digestive tract. This makes the contents thicker and slows sugar absorption – which is good if you are a diabetic. Once the fibre gets into your large intestine the microbes there use it as food and ferment it, producing chemicals in the process that can protect against cancer. 

For more information on DNA visit the CSIRO website. Try extracting DNA from a banana!.