Drought-proof Barley And Wheat Could Save Aussie Farms

A new drought-proof gene for barley and wheat discovered by UQ researchers could change things for some Aussie farmers under the toughest conditions.

Researchers led by UQ PhD student Hannah Robinson have achieved a world first by identifying a key gene in barley that helps the plant to grow narrower roots and increase the yield in a season’s crops. These narrower roots can penetrate further through soil to reach water stores deep underground, even during a drought.

The team is seeking to connect with farmers in 2016 to start paddock trials of the new-and-improved barley strain. Farmers’ prayers for help in drier conditions caused by the recent El Nino may be answered.

Dr Lee Hickey of the Queensland Alliance for Agriculture and Food Innovation (QAAFI) said, “This may be one of the most exciting research findings to ever come out of my lab. For every additional millimetre of water accessed during the grain fill period, it translates to about 55 kilograms of grain [harvested] per hectare.”

In dry seasons, a crop that doesn’t have access to water in the top soil profile will have limited grain fill and struggle to meet the malt quality grades. The new gene could literally be a farm-saver by helping farmers continue to break even during a drought.

Ms Robinson, a former medical student turned plant scientist, proved that the gene for narrow root growth can provide 11% higher crop yields throughout Queensland and New South Wales.

The narrower, longer root growth was visible as early as 4 days after planting, with the team using clear pots to observe the developing root system.

Dr Hickey said the gene is already present in a lot of modern barley breeding material, and is therefore much closer to being commercially available than if the gene were only present in wild species. “It’s a matter of combining this gene with other characteristics like malt quality to get the best package.”

This research was made possible by scholarship funding from the Grains Research Development Corporation.

Australia One of the World’s Largest Barley Producers

  • Rice, maize (corn), wheat, and barley are the 4 most important cereal crops that the world relies on for food for people and animals.
  • Australia is the world’s 8th largest barley producer.
  • Australia produces around 7.5 million tonnes of barley every year.
  • We use barley for animal feed and beer production in Australia, but it is also a food commonly eaten by people in North Africa, Southwest Asia, and the Middle East.
  • The largest limitation on being able to grow barley crops is having enough water irrigation.

“Even before the harvesters hit the paddock, the lack of rain caused by the current El Niño has stripped around half a billion dollars in yield from the wheat industry and looks set to also have a major impact on the barley industry,” Ms Robinson said. “There appears to be no relief in sight as the next few months are forecast to be drier than average.”

More New Genes Being Used to Make Crops More Resilient

In 2014, a variety of barley was bred called Golden Promise, which was genetically-modified to be more resilient during drought conditions. This barley carries an extra copy of the HvSNAC1 gene, which promotes the closure of pores on the surface of barley leaves to reduce water loss.

Researchers from the John Innes Centre and SRUC have since proven that this gene makes the barley more able to resist infection by certain types of fungi. For example, the ‘Ramularia leaf spot’ typically appears when the leaves are starting to die naturally late in the season, and the Golden Promise barley’s leaves take longer than normal to die, letting the infection pass them by.

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