Climate change: Gene discovery could ‘future-proof’ barley

2nd September, 2019 by Amy Hopkins

Whisky producers are set to benefit from new research by Edinburgh-based scientists who have identified a gene responsible for drought resistance in barley.

Barley could become more drought resistant as the result of new research

Climate change is having an increasingly dramatic affect on the food and drink industries, but academics at Heriot-Watt University claim to have found a way to help “future-proof” barley as weather conditions become drier.

The team associated the gene HvMYB1 with drought resistance for the first time. This will potentially affect how planter breeder cultivate crops that are more resistant to the affects of climate change.

“This is a significant finding that will allow more drought-resistant crops to be bred in the future,” said Dr Peter Morris from the Institute of Earth and Life Sciences at Heriot-Watt University, who conceived the project.

“Drought is already impacting yields with the European cereals harvest hit particularly hard in 2018. A prolonged, dry and hot summer significantly impacted yields and quality.”

Morris added that it was a “considerable challenge” to characterise one particular barley gene, since the crop has more than 39,000 genes – almost double the number for humans.

“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,” continued Morris.

The research was conducted over the course of five years

“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.”

The research also has “important implications” for the production of wheat, maize and rice, according to Morris..

Dagmar Droogsma, director of industry at the Scotch Whisky Association (SWA), said: “The Scotch whisky industry relies on a sustainable and secure supply of good quality raw materials, now and in the future. Quality barley is central to the success of the Scotch whisky industry.”

Approximately 90% of the barley used for Scotch is sourced from Scotland, while the rest is sourced from the UK and EU. In 2018, the value of barley grown in the UK rose by £85 million (US$102.6m) to £957m (US$1.15bn), according to figures from the Department for Environment, Food & Rural Affairs.

The new research, which is the result of five years’ work, has been published in the Plant Physiology and Biochemistry journal. It was funded by the SWA.

The Spirits Business recently explored how climate change is affecting the Cognac industry as the region faces untimely frosts and hailstorms.

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