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The genomics of beer

Gary Muehlbaue studies the genomics of barley, a primary ingredient in beer.

Why barley?

“Beer,” Gary Muehlbauer, new head of the Department of Plant Biology, responds quickly when asked why he has devoted his research career to understanding the genomics of this ancient grain.

He’s only partly kidding. A large share of the world’s barley crop is used to make fermented malt, a key ingredient in beer. Until about 1500, barley was also used to make bread, but it’s now used almost exclusively for malt and animal feed, plus the odd handfuls that get tossed into soups and stews.

“You could argue that beer is responsible for civilization,” Muehlbauer says with a smile. Some anthropologists believe that humans gave up their hunter-gatherer lifestyle and became farmers to provide a supply of barley for beer. And that farming triggered a series of other innovations, including transportation, math and language; all, presumably, to produce, transport and sell beer.*

But whatever the history and uses of barley, there’s no arguing that it’s one of the world’s primary grain crops. And as such, gaining an understanding of its genetic composition lays the foundation for promoting desirable traits that improve productivity and make it more resistant to disease, drought and temperature extremes, and perhaps even delight the senses of beer fans.

Muehlbauer did not discover his interest in barley in a microbrewery, however. His father, Fred Muehlbauer, was a USDA-ARS geneticist and agronomist and a faculty member at Washington State University (Pullman, WA). The family home was a gathering place for other agronomists and faculty from related disciplines. As a child, Gary spent a lot of time listening to their conversations.

Consequently, he knew that he wanted to get a Ph.D. in genetics while he was still in elementary school.

“I decided on plant genetics because dissecting plants is much more tolerable than dissecting animals,” he says. “Plants are interesting because they can’t run away when they are threatened. They have to stay put and figure out how to survive where they are. I am fascinated by the defense mechanisms they have developed.”

While still an undergraduate at Washington State University, Muehlbauer worked on a barley breeding project with one of the first plant molecular geneticists. He picked up an M.S. degree in soybean genetics at the University of Nebraska, followed by a Ph.D. in maize genetics at the University of Minnesota. And he topped off his education with a postdoctoral fellowship at U.C. Berkeley in maize genetics; specifically, how corn plants develop leaves. He then came back to Minnesota, where he joined the Agronomy and Plant Genetics faculty in the College of Food, Agricultural and Natural Resource Sciences.

From Minnesota, he has led national efforts to study the genomics of barley and other grains, and conducted research on specific diseases and issues that affect grain crops. His research keeps him busy full time, but he couldn’t pass up an opportunity to become head of the Department of Plant Biology. When former head Kate VandenBosch resigned earlier this year to become dean of the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences at University of Wisconsin - Madison, faculty recommended Muehlbauer as her successor. CBS Dean Robert Elde and Allen Levine, dean of the College of Food Agriculture and Natural Resource Sciences, offered him the job as head of the joint department.

He accepted because he sees opportunities to use genomic technologies more extensively and to bring people from the  Plant Biology, Plant Pathology, Agronomy & Plant Genetics, and Horticulture departments together to advance research and improve graduate and undergraduate programs.

“There is tremendous capacity in plant sciences on this campus,” he says. “We need to do a better job of tapping it by working together.”

Muehlbauer has lots of experience bringing people together. For many years he has led the USDA-sponsored Barley Coordinated Agricultural Project (BCAP), which involves 30 scientists at 19 institutions. Their goal is to use genomic tools and approaches to develop superior barley cultivars and provide access to agronomic and economically important genes. In 2011, BCAP received the USDA Secretary's Honor Award for promoting sustainable agricultural production, biotechnology and food security.

He is also co-director of the USDA’s Triticeae Coordinated Agricultural Project (TCAP). Triticeae is a family of grasses that includes wheat, barley and rye. Research focuses on identifying genes that will enable crops to be productive as climate changes. 

Other projects include a collaboaration with the Department of Energy's Joint Genome Initiative to sequence the barley genome (which is part of a larger collaboration involving European countries and the United States) and research on the fungal pathogen Fusarium graminearum, which causes head blight in wheat, barley and rye. Fusarium head blight, one of the most destructive crop diseases in the world, wiped out the wheat crop in Minnesota and North Dakota in 1993. Muehlbauer is trying to identify the genes that enable grains to resist the pathogen.

With his new duties, it helps that Muehlbauer lives walking distance to the St. Paul campus in St. Anthony Park, a popular neighborhood among faculty. His wife, Charlene, teaches piano and takes care of the family, which includes children Amanda (22), Kevin (18) and Jackson (13). Amanda, a U of M student, worked with CBS scientists Will Ratcliff and Mike Travisano on their recent, widely-publicized research replicating the evolution of one-celled organisms into multi-celled organisms. Kevin has been accepted to the University of Minnesota, but plans to spend a year in China before beginning college. Their younger son, Jackson, attends Murray Junior High School.

— Peggy Rinard

*”How Beer Saved the World,” a tongue-in-cheek documentary aired on the Disovery Channel that features interviews with scientists from around the world extolling the virtues of beer.

“There is tremendous capacity in plant sciences on this campus. We need to do a better job of tapping it by working together.”

– Gary Muehlbauer