UW plant breeders develop an even heart-healthier oat

May 16, 2012 by Sevie Kenyon

University of Wisconsin-Madison plant breeders have developed a new oat variety that's significantly higher in the compound that makes this grain so cardio-friendly.

"The biggest thing that stands out about this new variety, BetaGene, is that it's both a high yielding variety and high in beta glucan. Beta glucan is a heart-healthy chemical that is exclusive to oats," says John Mochon, program manager of the Small Breeding Program in the UW-Madison agronomy department.

BetaGene is 2 percent higher in beta glucan on average than other oat varieties on the market. That may not sound much, but it's huge from a nutrition standpoint. A 2 percent bump translates to a 20-percent boost in beta glucan levels in products made from the oat.

Nutrition researchers liken beta glucan to a sponge that traps cholesterol-rich acids in the . Consuming 3 grams daily of this —combined with a healthy diet—may lower the blood's level of LDL, the so-called bad , lessening the risk of coronary disease, according to one report from the USDA's Agricultural Research Service.

UW breeders have increased acreage of the new variety this year in hopes of releasing it for the 2014 growing season.

Wisconsin is among the top oat-producing states. Growers here plant about 300,000 acres of oats each year—about half of that harvested as forage and fed to livestock, the rest harvested for grain—with yields averaging 60 to 70 bushels per acre. But better returns from other crops and other market forces have made oats less attractive to growers, Mochon says. Overall oat acreage in the United States has declined steadily over the years.

"That's why I'm trying to add value to oats. It's one of my goals to reverse that trend," he says. "Things like increased beta glucan, developing forage lines, developing lines that are rust resistant, and developing lines that have a high groat percentage are all part of this effort."

Mochon hopes that BetaGene will help improve demand for oats. The new variety has already generated some interest in the food industry. At least one large milling company paid a visit to Wisconsin to learn more about the experimental variety.

It has taken UW breeders 14 years to bring BetaGene to this point. They performed the original cross in 1998 and nurtured the oat in variety trials until they were confident that it was ready for growers. This is standard operating procedure for vetting experimental crop varieties. It takes 12 to 15 years to prove that they can yield well, fend off disease and have a track record for success before being considered for release, Mochon says.

In this case, there was also an international angle to be considered. Canada is a big producer and therefore an important potential market, so Mochon is working to ensure BetaGene also meets requirements for certified, licensed sale north of the border.

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