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General Mills: Taking Oats to the Next Level

December 03, 2011

General Mills: Taking Oats to the Next Level


Make a list of healthy foods, and oats will be on it.

Why? Because of the beta-glucan the grain contains.

Beta-glucan is a soluble fiber that is clinically proven to reduce cholesterol. Lowering cholesterol, according to the American Heart Association, is known to lessen the risk of stroke and heart disease.

Even with proven heart-healthy benefits, food manufacturer General Mills is working to make oats even better. As the producer of Cheerios and one of the largest users and handlers of oats in North America, the company has invested in research to yield, solely through natural and traditional breeding methods, an oat with higher and more consistent levels of beta-glucan.

One of the first steps General Mills took toward achieving that goal was a grant to the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) in 2009 to fund the creation of a “genome map” to be shared through a publicly accessible database for oat breeders around the world. General Mills’ investment encouraged others and the result was a research fund of more than $1.7 million and a global research partnership of more than 30 scientists all concentrated on mapping specific genes in oats to develop varieties with improved nutrition and resistance to drought and pests through traditional breeding techniques.

In 2010, General Mills joined the North Carolina Research Campus (NCRC) in Kannapolis, a public-private venture of university, corporate and government organizations aimed at preventing, treating and curing disease through the advancement of human health, nutrition and agriculture. Shortly thereafter, General Mills began partnering with the NCRC on additional oats research. The oat genome is a complex, hexaploid genome, which is more difficult to map than other grains, yet the collaborative research based at the NCRC has advanced the understanding of the oat genome to the point that it equals that of other grains such as wheat and barley.

“The North Carolina Research Campus, with its expertise in genomic mapping, wet lab services and sequencing capabilities, was a perfect fit for the collaboration,” said Joe Lutz, senior scientist in agricultural research for General Mills. “Being at the NCRC gives us access to state-of-the-art facilities, equipment and results that we could not replicate on our own. In essence, we get access to world-class facilities for specific projects rather than having to invest the capital to build it ourselves.”

At the NCRC, General Mills collaborates with the David H. Murdock Research Institute (DHMRI) and the University of North Carolina at Charlotte’s Bioinformatics Services Division on such projects as the next generation sequencing of oats. The DHMRI contains one of the largest collections of scientific equipment for the study of proteomics, genomics and metabolomics. Of use to General Mills is also the DHMRI’s microscopy suite and NMR facility, which contains 950 MHz and 700 MHz Bruker spectrometers. The 950 MHz is the largest in the western hemisphere.

“While General Mills has more than 1,200 research and development employees with a variety of deep technical expertise, we don’t have any employees who specialize in this specific type of research,” Lutz said. “I can now co-develop and brainstorm solutions and research ideas ahead of time with the people who can also execute and plan the research.”

For more information:
David H. Murdock Research Institute, www.dhmri.org
General Mills, www.generalmills.com
University of North Carolina at Charlotte Bioinformatics Services Division, http://bioservices.uncc.edu

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