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Barley to take the heat

Cereal crops such as wheat and barley are worth over $12 billion to the Australian economy. These crops are highly sensitive to changing environmental conditions with higher temperatures reducing the number of seeds that they produce. 

An international collaboration between researchers at the University of Adelaide and Shanghai Jiao Tong University’s Joint Lab for Plant Science and Breeding and led by Prof. Dabing Zhang, has now identified a gene in barley that could help crop growers maintain high yields as temperatures rise.

With the help of light and electron microscopy at Microscopy Australia’s University of Adelaide facility, the team discovered that a barley protein, known as HvMADS1, limits the number of flowers generated on each spike when plants are grown at high temperatures. As temperatures rise, HvMADS1 binds more tightly to specific regions of DNA, reducing the action of genes that normally encourage cell division and flower formation.

SEM images of a developing normal barley spike grown at high temperatures (right) and one where HvMADS1 has been removed, showing greater branching (left).

Using a genome editing technique, the researchers generated new plants that lack HvMADS1. These new plants grew branched spike structures, bearing more flowers at high ambient temperatures.

Co-author A/Prof. Matthew Tucker, Deputy Director of the University of Adelaide’s Waite Research Institute said: “This study reveals a new role of this protein family in responding to thermal change and directing the composition of flowers on a stem. With temperature rises predicted globally, plant scientists and breeders have an enormous challenge ahead of them to generate crop yields needed to feed growing populations in higher temperatures.”

This discovery of how HvMADS1 acts in response to temperature gives scientists insights into how to breed climate-smart plants to sustain productivity.

G. Li et al., Nature Plants 2021

February 12, 2022