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Genetic study on oats will help unlock their health benefits

An international team of scientists has recently decoded the oat genome, and the results will help experts track down which health benefits are associated with which genes. Oats have complicated genetics, with six sets of chromosomes and over 80,000 genes. By comparison, humans have two sets of chromosomes and approximately 20,000 genes.

This explains why it took Manuel Spannagl, a scientist at the Environmental Health Center at Helmholtz Munich, six years to sequence and analyze the oat genome.

Why decode the genome? The researchers were interested to know why fewer people are allergic to oats compared to foods like wheat and rye. They found that oats contain fewer proteins that correlate with gluten, which means that fewer people will be allergic to them.

“This allowed us to confirm on a genomic level that oats in their pure form are suitable for a gluten-free diet,” said study co-author Nadia Kamal.

The scientists also found the gene that produces beta-glucans, a type of dietary fiber. Compared to other cereals, oats have a much higher level of beta-glucans. These fibers are beneficial to those suffering from type 2 diabetes, and have also been shown to reduce cholesterol.

Oats are also good for the environment, and can grow in less than ideal soil and generally require less land than wheat. Compared to other cereals, cultivating oats typically requires less use of chemicals for insecticides, fungicides, and fertilizers. 

Furthermore, now that we know more about their genetics, the researchers believe we can grow oats in an even more sustainable manner. 

“We have created the potential for targeted breeding, since we are now able to tell which oat varieties are compatible with another,” said Nick Sirijovski from Lund University and ScanOats. “At this point, we can combine traits for an even more favorable health profile, higher yields, better resistance to parasites and drought, and most importantly, in preparation for climate change.” 

The study is published in the journal Nature.

By Erin Moody , Staff Writer

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