All crops face increasing stress at the hand of climate change, which, in turn, will weaken our food supply unless we take action.
British researchers at Heriot-Watt University have recently made an important contribution in this regard. After five years of painstaking work, their new study isolated a single gene, called HvMYB1, that increases the survivability of barley against drought.
Warmer temperatures can amplify the impacts of drought by enhancing evaporation from soils, making periodic droughts worse than they would be under cooler conditions. Droughts can also persist through a “positive feedback” loop where very dry soils and diminished plant cover can further suppress rainfall in an already dry area.
The researchers led by Peter Morris performed experiments in which they increased the expression of HvMYB1 during simulated conditions of drought. These genetically modified plants were able to survive prolonged periods of drought compared to unmodified control plants.
All of this sounds promising especially after last year’s drought in Europe caused depressingly low yields. In 2018, barley production suffered an 8% loss equivalent to hundreds of millions of tonnes of barley flushed down the drain.
Barley is the main ingredient in both whiskey and beer, both industries worth billions and which employ tens of thousands of people.
In the future, the researchers plan on breeding more improved strains of barley. What’s interesting is that virtually all plants carry a similar gene, so this research could have wide implications across the whole cereal industry.