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  • How Can Plants Survive Drought?

How Can Plants Survive Drought?

Sep 10 2019 Read 366 Times

In a breakthrough that could address the major challenges of climate change and drought faced by the save the agricultural industry, a team of scientists from Heriot-Watt University in Edinburgh have isolated a drought-resistant gene in barley. The team was led by Professor Peter Morris, who asserts that the findings could help future-proof crops against global warming.

Climate change is presenting a serious problem faced by the agricultural industry, with experts warning rising temperatures could trigger global water and food shortages. The cereal industry is particularly at risk as it relies heavily on water. Drought is already starting to impact harvests, with European cereal yields dropping significantly in 2018 due to the long summer with little rain.  

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

Isolating HvMYB1, aka the drought-resistant gene

Morris and his team spent almost five years isolating HvMYB1, a drought-resistant gene present in barley. They pinpointed HvMYB1 from more than 39,000 genes found in the plant, with tests indicating that prominent expression correlates with increased ability to survive drought.

“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,” says Morris.

The Heriot-Watt University findings were published in the journal Plant Physiology and Biochemistry, with Morris predicting the significant finding will "allow more drought-resistant crops to be bred in the future."

Safeguarding the national economy

Following wheat, rice and corn, barley is one of the largest grain crops in the world. As well as producing breakfast cereals, breads and animal feed, the grain is critical to the Scotch whisky market, one of the leading items exported from the UK. According to official figures from HM Revenue and Customs (HMRC), whisky exports in 2018 grew by 7.8% to hit a record £4.70 billion. For Morris and his team, developing drought-resistant crops isn't just about maximising yields, but also about safeguarding the British economy.  

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