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New improvement methods for barley and wheat give high yield, better disease resistance and high grain quality

New research finds that genomic selection is highly efficient in the improvement of barley and wheat.

Photo: Jette Odgaard Villemoes


The past many years, the yield of barley and wheat has been stagnant. This is partially because traditional improvement of new sorts takes a long time, but also because of increasing limits to the use of fertilisers and pesticides. The improvement methods, which have been applied so far, have increased the yield with approx. 1 percent per year. In collaboration with Nordic Seed, researchers at Center for Quantitative Genetics and Genomics have now developed a new improvement strategy for barley and wheat based on genomic selection. The strategy has been implemented at Nordic Seed with great success.

The increasing need for food for the world population and the limitations of the use of pesticides mean that the need for streamlining the improvement methods is necessary, also to minimize the impact on the climate. Therefore, the purpose of the project has been to improve the existing genomic methods for improving barley and wheat, and the research results have surpassed all expectations. The goal was to double the yearly genetic progress, but in reality, the progress has increased by a factor of 2.5.

The improvement methods applied so far have increased the yield with approx. 1 percent per year. This has been achieved by crossing high yielding parent plants and subsequently perform a comprehensive and time-consuming propagation and test of the following generations of plants for yield, disease resistance and product quality.

Efficient methods for genomic selection of new sorts have now been further developed for application in barley and wheat. Previously, the methods have been applied in livestock and grasses, which are outbred sorts, where mating should be between individuals that are not closely related. Contrary to this, barley and wheat are self-pollinating. This means that each plant normally functions as both mother and father for its offspring, and that the commercially grown plants are genetically identical.

Genomic selection uses thousands of genetic markers spread out over the entire genome. These markers are used to determine the connection between the markers and the traits in barley and wheat to be improved in future sorts. This can for instance be traits such as yield, disease resistance and product quality. Genomic selection demands use of complicated, mathematic models and access to powerful computers, which, among other things, Center for Quantitative Genetics and Genomics and its researchers have brought into the project. The models are now developed and tested ready for use in the practical improvement of barley and wheat.

Genomic selection is a well-functioning and cost efficient alternative to the selection for individual, known genes, as these usually only describe a small part of the genetic variation that exists between lines of barley and wheat.

The project’s director, Ahmed Jahoor from Nordic Seed, states that ”the project is the most successful project that Nordic Seed has participated in. It will lead to major changes in the improvement programmes for barley and wheat at Nordic Seed, and it will give us good opportunity for the marketing of new and even higher yielding, robust sorts in the future”.


The project was subsidised by Grønt Udviklings- og Demonstrationsprogram ((GUDP – Green Development and Demonstration programme), which is an industry support programme under the Danish Ministry for Environment and Agriculture. The project was carried out in a close collaboration between Nordic Seed and researchers at the Center for Quantitative Genetics and Genomics at Aarhus University.

For further information, please contact

Ahmed Jahoor, Nordic Seed
Head of Breeding and Research
+45 8887 5106
+45 2913 4757 

Professor Just Jensen, QGG Aarhus University
+45 8715 7546
+45 40821680

Text partially from the project’s final report