Summary The genomes of barley and wheat, two of the world's most important crops, are very large and complex due to their high content of repetitive DNA. In order to obtain a whole-genome sequence sample, we performed two runs of 454 (GS20) sequencing on genomic DNA of barley cv. Morex, which yielded approximately 1% of a haploid genome equivalent. Almost 60% of the sequences comprised known transposable element (TE) families, and another 9% represented novel repetitive sequences. We also discovered high amounts of low-complexity DNA and non-genic low-copy DNA. We identified almost 2300 protein coding gene sequences and more than 660 putative conserved non-coding sequences. Comparison of the 454 reads with previously published genomic sequences suggested that TE families are distributed unequally along chromosomes. This was confirmed by in situ hybridizations of selected TEs. A comparison of these data for the barley genome with a large sample of publicly available wheat sequences showed that several TE families that are highly abundant in wheat are absent from the barley genome. This finding implies that the TE composition of their genomes differs dramatically, despite their very similar genome size and their close phylogenetic relationship.