Scientists at the John Innes Centre in Norwich are developing a barley plant that has four times the drought tolerance of their parent stock.
The effects of drought on a crop can be devastating – yield is generally reduced and the grain which is collected is often of poor quality compared to that grown under optimal conditions.
Barley is the world's fourth most commonly grown crop and has diverse uses such as cattle feed and in the production of beer and whiskey.
– Dr Wendy Harwood, John Innes Centre
Poor water availability is a major limitation for many crops, and one area in which science, and especially genetic modification (GM), can make a big impact. When you think that agriculture uses about 70% of global water and it takes 2,000 to 3,000 litres of water to produce the food we typically eat in a day you can see how dependent we are on having that water available.
Using GM technology, researchers are able to work on a gene responsible for opening and closing tiny pores on the surface of the barley leaves. These pores, called stomata, are used by the plant for gas exchange but also provide an exit route for water vapour to leave the leaf. They tend to close at night to conserve water and open in the day to allow photosynthesis.
By putting the naturally-present gene controlling this process into overdrive, the scientists are developing barley plants with stomata which closed more readily when water was scarce, retaining the water content of the plant and making them more resilient in drought conditions.
They are working in partnership with the University of Jordan but the results could help farmers in the UK too.