Background: Advanced cycle breeding utilizes crosses among elite lines and is a successful method to develop new inbreds. However, it results in a reduction in genetic diversity within the breeding population. The development of malting barley varieties requires the adherence to a narrow malting quality profile and thus the use of advanced cycle breeding strategies. Although attention has been focused on diversity in gene expression and its association with genetic diversity, there are no studies performed in a single breeding program examining the implications that consecutive cycles of breeding have on gene expression variation and identifying the variability still available for future improvement.Results: Fifteen lines representing the historically important six-rowed malting barley breeding program of the University of Minnesota were genotyped with 1,524 SNPs, phenotypically examined for six malting quality traits, and analyzed for transcript accumulation during germination using the Barley1 GeneChip array. Significant correlation was detected between genetic and transcript-level variation. We observed a reduction in both genetic and gene expression diversity through the breeding process, although the expression of many genes have not been fixed. A high number of quality-related genes whose expression was fixed during the breeding process was identified, indicating that much of the diversity reduction was associated with the improvement of the complex phenotype "malting quality", the main goal of the University of Minnesota breeding program. We also identified 49 differentially expressed genes between the most recent lines of the program that were correlated with one or more of the six primary malting quality traits. These genes constitute potential targets for the improvement of malting quality within the breeding program.Conclusions: The present study shows the repercussion of advanced cycle breeding on gene expression diversity within an important barley breeding program. A reduction in gene expression diversity was detected, although there is diversity still present after forty years of breeding that can exploited for future crop improvement. In addition, the identification of candidate genes for enhancing malting quality may be used to optimize the selection of targets for further improvements in this economically important phenotype.