UK: Scientists detect drought-resistant barley

Scientists at Heriot-Watt University in Edinburgh/Scotland have identified a gene in barley which is responsible for drought-resistance. This can help to develop barley types which are better suited for hot and dry climates and can help against some of the effects of climate change.

Dr. Peter C. Morris from Heriot-Watt University led the research team that spent nearly five years isolating the specific gene – HvMYB1 or Mib for short – from more than 39,000 genes in barley. “By increasing the expression of this particular gene in test plants and simulating drought conditions, we’ve been able to prove that plants in which HvMYB1 is more prominently expressed are able to survive prolonged periods of drought,” he says.

“Drought is already impacting yields, with the European cereal harvest hit particularly hard in 2018. A prolonged, dry and hot summer significantly impacted yields and quality. As climate change gathers pace and we experience more extreme seasons, it is essential we can maintain continuity of supply,” says the scientist.

HvMYB1 acts as a master switch, turning on other genes which protect the plant against heat stress. Notably, it is increasing the amount of sugars and amino acids, and causing the pores to close more tightly, thus allowing less water to escape from the plants.

The gene exists in all barley plants but usually the genetic switch to protect the plants against drought is not activated. The researchers have now isolated specific plants and have bred them over generations in which the genetic switch is always in the "on" position.

“Genetic variation is essential in plant breeding for resilience so we expect this research will now be used by plant breeders as a marker for drought resistance. It will help focus attention on different barley varieties in which this gene is naturally expressed more prominently. This may lead to greater variation in the gene pool of crop plants and more drought resistant crops in future years,” says DrRoss Alexander, a lecturer in the Institute of Life and Earth Sciences at Heriot-Watt who has published the research paper together with Dr Charlotte Wendelboe-Nelson and Dr Peter C. Morris

The findings do not only apply to barley but also to other cereals like wheat, corn and rice. "It covers all plants, because all plants have a Mib," says Dr. Alexander.

It will take several years until the first commercial drought-resistant breeds will reach the market but breeders “could use this as a guide and a tool to help find varieties which will grow when it's 25 degrees outside and there's no rain," according to the scientist.

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