At the Plant & Animal Genome Conference XXIV in San Diego, California, scientists with the NC State Plants for Human Health Institute at the NC Research Campus (NCRC) in Kannapolis, North Carolina led a poster presentation on their study of hexaploid oat genetics, a cereal plant with large amounts of nutritious beta-glucan. Boosting beta-glucan production in cereal products would be largely beneficial for oat breeders and scientists.
Graduate student Scott Smith from the North Carolina State University Plants for Human Health Institute (PHHI) at the NCRC, advised by PHHI Assistant Professor Tzung-fu Hsieh, PhD, is conducting his graduate student research project on the hexaploid oat study. With the help of Hseih, Smith is identifying gene candidates for enhancing beta-glucan production and “designing strategies to validate the function of candidate genes using heterologous systems,” Hsieh said.
How do different oat cultivars produce different amounts of beta-glucan? Is it due to gene expression levels, sequence variations, or epigenetic variations? These are questions that Dr. Hsieh and many other plant biologists are asking.
Beta-glucan is a naturally occurring polysaccharide with a wide variety of beneficial characteristics that associate it with boosting human health. Beta-glucan strengthens immune defense by activating complement, a component of the innate immune system, recruiting macrophages, and enhancing natural killer cell function. Beta-glucan has also been shown to prevent oncogenesis, the initial transformation of normal cells into cancerous cells, and inhibit tumor growth.
Smith’s research at the PHHI focuses on identifying the regions of the hexaploid genome that are associated with beta-glucan accumulation. This information could be useful for oat breeders and for scientists to know what genes boost beta-glucan production. Smith completed “genome-wide association studies,” also known as “GWAS,” to survey regions of genetic code to find the right match to beta-glucan.
“We are not sure if these genes are indeed the underlying genes responsible for beta-glucan synthesis in oats,” Hsieh said. “Empirical experimental validations are needed for their confirmation.”
Together with Smith, Dr. Hsieh, and other colleagues from the PHHI, these researchers aim overall to promote the consumption of plant foods in order to boost human health and gain protection from diseases. By increasing beta-glucan production in certain plant crops, these research findings have the potential to enhance the immune response of the people who eat those product.
By: Kara Marker, NCRC Marketing Intern