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Newly discovered barley gene could help cultivate drought resistant crops

The discovery of a gene in the barley plant could be the key to creating drought resistant crops in the future. 

After nearly five years of research, scientists from Heriot-Watt University identified a gene called HvMYB1 and proved that this gene is responsible for tolerance to stressors like drought and heat in barley and other cereals.  

The study was published in the Journal of Plant Physiology and Biochemistry.

Barley has more than 39,000 genes and so finding a specific gene that helps with stress tolerance was more than a challenge.  

After the researchers identified the HvMYB1 gene, tests with plants showed that when gene expression is prominent, a plant can survive drier conditions. 

“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,” said Peter Morris, the leader of the research. 

Cereals are staple crops and an important source of nutrients worldwide. According to Morris, 2018 was already a hard year for European cereal harvests and future crop yields will be impacted by drouts and heat waves due to climate change. 

Finding ways to help make crops heartier and “future-proof,” is crucial for food security.  

“As climate change gathers pace and we experience more extreme seasons, it is essential we can maintain continuity of supply,” said Morris. “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.” 

The Scotch Whisky Association funded the research, but the study has broader implications beyond helping ensure the future of the UK’s whiskey exports. 

“This also has important implications for the wider cereals industry including the production of wheat, maize, and rice,” said Morris.

By Kay Vandette, Staff Writer 

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