Scientists in Scotland have identified a gene responsible for drought resistance in barley, which could help future-proof the cereals industry to increasingly dry conditions as climate change gathers pace.
Publishing the results of nearly five years of work in the Journal of Plant Physiology and Biochemistry, a team from Heriot-Watt University have demonstrated that gene HvMYB1 controls stress tolerance in cereals such as barley. This is the first time HvMYB1 has been associated with drought resistance.
Barley has more than 39,000 genes – almost double the number in humans – so characterising a gene that promotes drought resistance was a particular challenge.
Dr Peter Morris, who led the research, believes the “significant finding” will allow more drought resistance crops to be bred in the future.
“As climate change gathers pace and we experience more extreme seasons, it is essential we can maintain continuity of supply,” he said. “This is significant for key industries like Scotch whisky, one of the UK’s leading export items. Our project focused specifically on barley – one of the three ingredients used in the production of Scotch whisky.”
He added: “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.
“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.
“This also has important implications for the wider cereals industry, including the production of wheat, maize and rice.”
The research was funded by the Scotch Whisky Association (SWA), which aims to secure the sustainability of the Scotch whisky industry.
Dagmar Droogsma, director of industry at the 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, with the rest from around the UK and the EU when necessary.
“The SWA works closely with specialists at Heriot-Watt University, and others in the sector, to ensure that the industry is equipped to adapt to any changes that may arise from a changing climate. We therefore welcome this research which helps to provide resilience against the effects of climate change and to sustain the diversity of barley varieties used for Scotch whisky.”
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