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Sowing the seeds of change through collaboration

A pioneering initiative between CSIRO, InterGrain, and Edith Cowan University (ECU) was launched in 2020 as part of the CSIRO Industry PhD program.

The ground-breaking project aims to improve Australian barley malting practices to make them less resource intensive.

Specifically, the project seeks to understand the biological mechanisms that enable a specific barley variety, known for its uniquely efficient malting properties, to be processed more sustainably than traditional barley lines.

Clare O'Lone was awarded an Industry PhD (iPhD) scholarship to work on this project. Clare spoke highly of the "industry angle, because of its applicability," and thought the iPhD program was "a really great opportunity to get involved in research and working with the breeders."

Boosting the barley industry

As Australia's second largest grain crop, barley is used extensively in the production of beer, whiskey, food products and livestock feed. The transformation of raw barley into these products is a multi-stage germination process called malting, with the steeping stage of malting requiring large volumes of water.

Interestingly, barley varieties that require less water during steeping have been identified by industry partner InterGrain, one of Australia's leading cereal breeding companies. Understanding how these varieties perform is a growing priority for InterGrain who intends to supply unique barley varieties to Australian maltsters who can then optimise their barley malting process by reducing water inputs. But this first requires an intricate understanding of the underlying plant biology.

Partnering with industry and academia yields results

The iPhD project was initiated by Michelle Colgrave, Professor of Food and Agricultural Proteomics at Edith Cowan University, an expert in proteomics. She scoped the project with InterGrain and CSIRO, considering the teams vast ability to deepen "the fundamental understanding of the science involved."

"We were looking at a project ... to improve barley lines to reduce environmental impact, as the malting process heavily utilises water. InterGrain were able to provide a few unique breeding lines that [allowed us] to unpack some of the biology for future breeding programs using mass spectrometry."

The project also sparked the interest of Angela Juhasz, senior lecturer from ECU. Angela was an associate supervisor of the project and provided day-by-day support and expertise in bioinformatics. Angela noted she was "very excited to use [their] mass spectrometry facility and work with Pilot Malting Australia, CSIRO and InterGrain."

Pilot Malting Australia (PMA) is a joint initiative between the Department of Agriculture and Food, Western Australia (DAFWA) and ECU, and is Australia's first pilot malting facility. PMA supported Clare's research by processing and testing the barley samples provided by InterGrain.

The project: From biomolecules to beer

Michelle Colgrave explained, "having a defined project and access to those materials meant that we could hit the ground running."

One commercial barley variety and one unique line developed by InterGrain were evaluated at PMA. During the steeping process, InterGrain's unique line used less water.

The maltsters at PMA carried out water saving methods during steeping and provided Clare with the grain for analysis involving mass spectrometry, composition assessment, bioinformatics and other techniques to conduct her research.

Grains of wisdom: InterGrain, ECU's and CSIRO's leading industry approach

InterGrain strongly advocates for industry research and supports many agricultural science PhD projects with Australian universities. InterGrain hosts yearly events which connect research students, irrespective of university or project, to share their research outcomes.

In addition to receiving regular support from her industry supervisor at InterGrain, Clare was able to develop networks and instigate learning opportunities at these annual events. She explained that InterGrain's yearly postgraduate symposium enabled her to see how her research project "could be applied and how it can add value to industry". She noted that during the symposium, participants "presented to stakeholders, toured the local InterGrain facilities, and learnt about each other's research."

"It gives students an excellent opportunity to talk about their projects, [and] collaborate with the other students and industry supervisors," explained Angela Juhasz.

The project was also supported by Jean-Philippe Ral, Team Leader in the Cereal Quality Group at CSIRO Agriculture and Food. Jean-Philippe provided expertise in grain composition and germination, specifically in starch and carbohydrate biology. Jean-Philippe commented, "We already have a strong relationship with InterGrain, and this PhD enables us to strengthen this relationship."

Paving the way for further research

This iPhD project enabled invaluable knowledge sharing between all three partners. Through this collaboration, Clare recognised the need for further research focused on optimising grain quality, "before drawing final conclusions on a superior [barley] breeding line."

Michelle Colgrave commented, "The collaboration and results of the research study were positive so both partners saw the value in collaboration and now we have set up another Industry PhD with the same partners. This new project works on a different cereal grain and the research will focus on grain quality rather than the sustainability element, all of which are important parts of any breeding program."

Jean-Philippe also sees the iPhD program as a means of bridging the gap with a company that CSIRO has a relationship with, but perhaps does not have the ability to collaborate. "The [iPhD] program is a great connector between a company, CSIRO, and a university to conduct exploratory research with no expectation of obtaining a hard commercial outcome."

Through the support and guidance of the supervisory team, Clare delivered tangible outcomes to InterGrain, ECU and CSIRO. She concluded, "it is important to understand whether your research can be applied in a practical sense, if it’s going to make real world outcomes, or if it's really impacting industry. An industry facing PhD is a good way to explore this."

Clare excelled throughout the four-year PhD candidature and submitted her thesis in February 2024. She is now curious to explore industry relevant postdoctoral research. "iPhD has opened up many avenues and [the] industry engagement [has helped me understand] how I can contribute towards the agricultural sector with my proteomics knowledge." 

Learn more about how the supervisory team and student worked together.

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