Improving barley as a sustainable, healthy wholegrain food crop

This PhD will be registered with Harper Adams University, where the candidate will start in October 2023. There are likely to be periods spent at each of the institutions, but most of the work will be based at NIAB (Cambridge).


Improving barley as a sustainable, healthy wholegrain food crop

Dr Phil Howell (NIAB, Cambridge), Dr Ed Dickin (Harper Adams University), Dr Kelly Houston (James Hutton Institute), Prof Jim Monaghan (Harper Adams University), Dr Steve Rawsthorne (The Morley Agricultural Foundation)


This project aims to develop spring barley as a sustainable source of healthy wholegrains for the food sector.

The UK grows >7m tonnes of spring barley each year, but very little is directly used in food, despite offering potential dietary health benefits. These are largely due to β-glucan, a non-starch polysaccharide found in the cell walls of cereal grains. This remains undigested in the small intestine, acting as soluble fibre which confers significant benefits, actively lowering blood cholesterol and slowing glucose release. Food barley usually requires grains in which the tough fibrous husk has been removed through processing, which can also strip away nutrients. ‘Naked’ grains, which naturally thresh free from the husk, offer a more sustainable alternative.

The β-glucan trait is important both for food barley (high levels preferred) and conventional barley (low levels). It is under relatively complex control, involving multiple genes with significant environmental interaction, whilst the ‘naked’ trait is monogenic. Ideally, healthy barley for wholegrain food will sustainably deliver consistently high β-glucan levels in a naked grain.

This multi-disciplinary PhD offers training in skills including quantitative genetics, field experimentation, plant breeding, molecular genetics, targeted mutagenesis and trait phenotyping, and exposure to the agricultural and food sectors.


  1. Growing a diverse barley collection in the field to characterise for β-glucan content, using standard biochemical analysis and NIRS predictions

  2. Genotyping this collection to identify a) lines carrying ‘high’ alleles at contrasting β-glucan QTLs and b) any apparent novel high β-glucan sources

  3. Crossing these together and advancing rapidly through speed breeding, to develop new mapping populations

  4. Investigating genetic interactions (epistasis, additivity), through testing different combinations of QTLs assembled in obj 3.

  5. Investigating how the environment and crop management can affect levels in both ‘high’ and ‘low’ beta-glucan varieties, through multi-location field trials

  6. Through crossing, QTL mapping and targeted mutagenesis, develop new genetic resources including marker-trait associations, mapping populations, near-isogenic lines, new variants


This PhD will be registered with Harper Adams University, where the candidate will start in October 2023. There are likely to be periods spent at each of the institutions, but most of the work will be based at NIAB (Cambridge).


Students will have access to training opportunities through their University / institute to complement their scientific development. This will be augmented by training in key bioscience areas such as statistics through the CTP-SAI.

There will be additional skills training to enhance employability and research capability. All CTP-SAI students will receive Graduate Training in Leadership and Management from MDS (www.mds-ltd.co.uk). Additionally, students will create their Personal Development Plan (PDP) to identify their development needs and areas of strength. Each student will receive individual coaching and mentoring pertinent to their career plans and skills development in addition to the scientific project supervision.


Placements are a key feature of CTP and UKRI-BBSRC expects all doctoral candidates on a CTP programme to undertake a placement. The Morley Agricultural Foundation (TMAF; https://tmaf.co.uk/) is an agricultural research charity that also has a research farm at Morley in Norfolk, where research trials and conventional arable farming occur alongside each other. This, and the network of end users provided through the TMAF Board and Advisor community, creates a great opportunity for the successful candidate to interact with potential users of their research. Within the CTP, formal placements are typically 3-18 months duration. Through TMAF, we will develop a more flexible approach to provide experiential learning of professional skills for business and/or entrepreneurship.


The student will be registered with the Harper Adams University and largely based at NIAB, Cambridge.  

Contact Dr Phil Howell ( https://www.niab.com/about/people/dr-phil-howell)  for an informal discussion on the research content of this PhD.

Beginning in October 2023, the successful candidate should have (or expect to have) an Honours Degree (or equivalent) with a minimum of 2.1 in Plant Science, Applied Statistics, or other related science subjects.  Students with an appropriate Masters degree are particularly encouraged to apply.

We welcome UK, EU, and international applicants. Candidates whose first language is not English must provide evidence that their English language is sufficient to meet the specific demands of their study. Candidates should check the requirements for each host organization they are applying to, but IELTS 6.5 (with no component below 6.0) or equivalent is usually the minimum standard. 

This studentship is for four years and is fully funded in line with UKRI-BBSRC standard rates. These are:

An annual maintenance stipend of £17,668, fee support of £4,596, a research training support grant of £5,000 and conference and UK fieldwork expenses of £300. 

To be classed as a home student, candidates must meet the following criteria: 

• Be a UK National (meeting residency requirements), or 

• Have settled status, or 

• Have pre-settled status (meeting residency requirements), or 

• Have indefinite leave to remain or enter 

If a candidate does not meet the criteria above, they would be classed as an international student and must demonstrate the ability to meet the supplement in fees required for an international student. 

Anyone interested should complete the online application form before the deadline of 6th January 2023. Interviews will take place at the end of January/beginning of February 2023.

Please contact recruitment-ctp-sai@niab.com for further application details.

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NIAB logo transparent background_edited.jpg
NIAB logo transparent background_edited.jpg
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