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Natural resources institute Finland (Luke) has sequenced the genome of Aslak, a Finnish oat cultivar. Aslak becomes the first domestic cereal to be whole genome sequenced and further functionally analyzed. This research offers new tools in improvement of existing oat cultivars through the breeding.

Sequencing oat’s genome will provide another tool in the development of new oat cultivars. The new cultivars be tailored to have features that fit for a variety of oat products and that respond to the needs of food and feed industry.

“We are now getting to know oat better than ever before. Sequencing Aslak’s genome gave us more precise knowledge what kind of genes there are, what functions they might have and how all this is affecting different oat traits. With this information it becomes easier to breed new oat cultivars, that are, for example, more resilient to climate change or contain more protein than before”, explains Lidija Bitz, senior scientist at Luke.

The sequencing of the whole genome of Aslak was conducted within Luke’s strategic project OatStanding.  “In OatStanding, not only the genome but all expressed genes were sequenced from ten different parts of Aslak, like flowers, grains, leaves and roots, to gain insights into their number, structure and functions. What we need now is to continue sequencing the genomes and getting to know genes of more oat varieties. This will provide the necessary tool for speeding up oat breeding”, Bitz says.

Santeri Kankaanpää from Luke sampling young leaves from Aslak for extraction of amounts of high-quality DNA. (Photo: Lidija Bitz, Luke, 2021)

Oat research can contribute to developing healthy diets

Oat research has always been a strength in Finland, and Luke has expertise in the field from plat genomics to farming, processing, improving the environmental sustainability and all the way to the international trade of oats. Transforming and rethinking oat cultivation can aid climate change mitigating as well as play important role in developing more balanced diets. Compared to other crops such as barley, oat does quite well in the environmental conditions predicted in current climate change scenarios.

Oat is known for having a health claim for humans, as it contains highly valuable fiber beta-glucan and plenty of other beneficial compounds such as oat unique antioxidants.

“Demand for oat has been growing, and people want to eat it, as it adds to healthy nutrition. Already now oat has a lot of protein, and with the ongoing research, we can investigate how to add the amount or develop the composition of it, and what it means to human diet”, Bitz concludes.

The sequencing of the whole genome of Aslak took the joint effort of experts from Luke’s plant genomics team, the DNA Sequencing and Genomics Laboratory at the Institute of Biotechnology, University of Helsinki, and Brigham Young University from Provo in USA to achieve this. Further steps of assembling sequenced pieces together and making the genome complete and ready to use was conducted through the PanOat project, a global effort to sequence 29 diverse oat genomes led by Dr. Martin Mascher from the Leibniz Institute of Plant Genetics and Crop Plant Research (IPK) in Germany.

Aslak plants growing in the Luke’s greenhouse in Jokioinen. The flowers, grains, leaves and roots of Aslak were sampled, and RNA was isolated for the purpose of sequencing all expressed genes from those particular tissues. (Photo: Lidija Bitz, Luke, 2020)