Plant scientists have identified a gene responsible for drought resistance in barley that could lead to more drought resistant crops.
Heriot-Watt University researchers in Edinburgh simulated drought conditions and found plants with the gene – which is known as HvMYB1 – were better able to survive prolonged periods of droughts.
The findings could lead to greater variation in the gene pool of crop plants and “future-proof” them from drier conditions caused by climate change.
Dr Peter Morris, who led the five-year research project, said: “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.”
The research marks the first time HvMYB1 – which controls stress tolerance in grains – has been associated with drought resistance.
Dr Morris told Laboratory News: “HvMYB1 was already known from barley before our work, but its function in stress signalling had not been described.”
Barley has more than 39,000 genes, compared to around 20,000 to 25,000 genes estimated in humans, meaning the research project ran for nearly five years.
While the research focused on barley, the work has implications for brewing and distillery industries that use wheat, maize and rice. This is because versions, or homologues, of HvMYB1 are found in most cereals, Dr Morris said.
The project was funded by Scotch Whisky Association, which aims to secure sustainability of the Scottish whisky industry. The team’s findings were published in the Journal of Plant Physiology and Biochemistry.