June 5, 2020, by Lexi Earl

A PhD placement with AB InBev in the USA

Jasmine Littler is a BBSRC-iCASE funded PhD candidate in the School of Biosciences. Her project is titled: Enhancing barley environmental stress tolerance through targeted mutagenesis. She is supervised by Dr Guillermina Mendiondo and co-supervised by Prof David Cook. As part of her PhD programme, Jasmine visited the AB InBev Barley Research Centre in Fort Collins, Colorado, USA, in early March, to undertake a PhD placement with AB InBev.

In this blog post, Jasmine recounts her experiences in the US, and shares some of the learning she took away with her.

We arrived in Fort Collins, Colorado, amid a snowstorm warning, and the next day we met the team at AB InBev’s Barley research centre. The research centre itself, situated almost in the shadow of the Fort Collins Budweiser plant, is made up of several labs, all committed to the different aspects of improving the brewing qualities. This is done by exploring better barley cultivars, and assessing their qualities within the agricultural and brewing industry.

Jasmine outside the Global Barley Hub research centre in Fort Collins, Colorado

AB InBev is dedicated to sustainability when it comes to their agriculture and processes. Worldwide, they are dedicated to improving crop yields and reducing the resources they use through research and development. At the heart of this initiative is the Barley Research Hub where I was based. My project focuses on barley growth in unfavourable conditions such as in drought, which links with AB InBev’s goal of growing crops in conditions where water is not readily available.

“We want to secure a resilient and high-quality supply of crops for decades to come.” -ABInBev

A tour of facilities started with the DNA lab and glasshouse area, where I would mostly be working, as well as the pathology and malting labs which are also crucial to testing new lines for suitability in the field. The DNA lab is a small lab working mainly on DNA extractions and genotyping. This will be used to genotype TILLING lines with known mutations in a gene of interest. The TILLING lines are being backcrossed by the team at Fort Collins, Audrey McDonald and Kate Rochenbach, to remove unwanted mutations from the lines, while keeping the mutation in the gene of interest.

Jasmine taking samples in the facility’s glasshouse, where TILLING lines were being backcrossed

The glasshouses at the facility are mostly laid out in concrete crossing blocks, which are large sowing beds where seeds are directly sown, and where each plant can be identified by its row and column. The system has automatic overhead watering (as I learned whilst collecting samples) and the plants are grown without pots to simulate field growth.

There was also a very special member of staff to meet at the facility, who had authority in every department: Stella the cat. She was very useful in the meeting!

Stella the cat

Jasmine with Stella the cat

The main bulk of the placement was to be made up of training in the valuable protocols that Audrey and Kate at AB InBev had developed in terms of genotyping the plants in the TILLING lines for the mutation of interest. The mutation within the lines should enhance the survival of the barley under drought stress. TILLING then involves crossing these mutations with a commercial line of barley to breed out the negative mutations in other areas of the genome. Whilst some of the mutation targets had clear heterozygous and homozygous genotypes, which could be identified through measuring fluorescence, other genotypes had to be found using restriction enzymes. It was helpful to learn from the team how these steps had been developed when problems arose, which greatly increased understanding on how this could be developed for other projects further down the line. It was also useful to me to see the amount of resources and work required to breed these TILLING lines, as it highlights the importance of working efficiently and keeping resources to a minimum.

One of the most impressive things about the DNA lab was the amount of automated technology. Robotics were used to quickly and accurately move small samples and add reagents, which meant that it greatly improved efficiency for DNA extraction protocols and restriction digests. The number of samples used in this facility is far greater than my use will be when genotyping at the University of Nottingham, however the protocols used were all the same as would be done manually. It was interesting to see how technology like this can be programmed and used for such a wide range of protocols, and therefore technology can enhance the speed and accuracy we can work at.

It was also useful for both Kate Rockenbach and Audrey MacDonald and for me to see what software and programmes we use at UoN to visualise and manipulate genetics and data. It is interesting to get different insight into which programmes are useful for which projects, and I was able to introduce software that helps to visualise the genetic sequence. They also introduced me to other software which was used to easily annotate and manipulate data to find restriction enzymes and other features of interest in the DNA sequences we were working with.

Jasmine genotyping samples from the backcrossed plants to identify homozygous and heterozygous lines

Having meetings with AB InBev staff from a wide range of background including molecular biology, breeding, and commercial, gave me valuable insight into the business side of research, and the difficulty of connecting long-term projects with return and investment. Meetings highlighted what information and quantifiable traits the company would find useful for attaching value to the project in terms of profits. This means that I can build experimental designs that include quantifications that could then be of interest to the company. The issue with long-term projects in breeding crops such as this one, is return and investment are seen over several years, which makes it more difficult to attach estimated profit. What is promising is the marketability of a stable barley under drought conditions, which could maintain a steady yield, which in turn creates stability for farmers.

The visit overall made me understand my role as a scientist on a larger scale. The work we are doing affects farmers, business and the sustainability of crops under climate change. The ethos behind AB InBev ensures that sustainability is at the forefront of their research, including a large drive on improving farmers productivity, profitability and their efficient use of natural resources, such as water. This includes the flagship platform SmartBarley:

 “SmartBarley leverages data, technology and insights to help more than 5,000 enrolled farmers improve their productivity and environmental performance. Today, SmartBarley is present in over 12 countries across five continents.”-ABInBev

I am excited to be a part of this project alongside the BBRSC and AB InBev because of the potential impact the scientific research has for farmers and business. I have seen first-hand the links between breeders and researchers, and it has highlighted the motivation behind academic research projects such as this one for future agricultural sustainability. I look forward to seeing how this project makes an impact on producing sustainable yields under challenging global environments.

Overall the whole team at the Barley research centre were so welcoming, and I would like to especially thank Kate and Audrey who made me feel at home out in Colorado!

Jasmine at AB InBev in Colorado

Posted in Food Stories