A large machine in a field

The Royal Society of Edinburgh, Scotland’s National Academy, is holding a free event this September to help people learn more about how scientific researchers are working towards creating better barley, as part of its flagship event series Curious.

Curious – running from 4-17 September this year – is a completely free and open series of tours, talks and workshops that brings together some of Scotland’s finest minds in various academic fields with the aim of getting under the surface of some of the most important issues of the day.

Barley is the world’s fourth most cultivated cereal crop and is a vital contributor of the Scottish economy as barley grains are the key constituents of whisky, Scotland’s national drink and its biggest export. This free online panel discussion will give people the opportunity to hear from three leading scientific researchers from the University of Dundee, The James Hutton Institute and International Barley Hub (IBH) in Dundee, and how their work is helping to tackle issues of food security and sustainable production.

Professor Robbie Waugh FRSE, Dr Sarah McKim and Dr Davide Bulgarelli will share their expertise and discuss their work at the cutting edge of genetic research in plants.

Dr Sarah McKim, senior lecturer in the Division of Plant Sciences at the University of Dundee, has led research into the phenomenon of grain ‘skinning’ which happens when the hull barley grain partially sheds away, leading to reduced grain quality. Trying to find the specific genes involved in grain skinning led to other discoveries.

A man wearing a suit and tie smiling at the camera
Dr Davide Bulgarelli
A close up of a person in a green field
Dr Sarah McKim
A man wearing glasses
Professor Robbie Waugh FRSE

Dr McKim said: “Chasing down a gene responsible for skinning actually helped us identify that this gene also controls another trait altogether – the formation of stomata.

“These are surface pores on land plants that that open and close and help the plant exchange gases such as carbon dioxide, one of the major ways carbon dioxide is removed from the air. So, although we were looking at this gene because it controlled grain skinning, a very discrete problem specific to barley, we found a gene that controls those air pores all over plants.

“This is a great example of a finding that has wider implications beyond grain quality.”

Another expert from the University of Dundee, senior lecturer in the Division of Plant Sciences, Dr Davide Bulgarelli, will share his own expertise and findings from his project.

Dr Bulgarelli said: “I am interested in what’s going on below ground, so the roots of the plants and the microbes that interface between the soil and roots. While plants can transform light energy into chemical energy, a process known as photosynthesis, to do so they need to acquire minerals and those minerals are very often soil-bound.”

A fuller understanding of the role of microorganisms in the soil where barley is grown may help farmers cut down the amount of fertiliser required, which in turn may reduce the carbon footprint of agriculture.

The fundamental research into barley led by these scientists feeds into the wider barley industries of breeding, farming, malting, brewing, food, and feed. This collaborative working is part of the role of the newly established International Barley Hub (IBH) hosted at The James Hutton Institute, whose goal is to translate discoveries into wider economic, social and commercial benefits. This will have global impacts as barley is grown in over 100 countries and is used for animal feed, human food and the production of alcohol.

Professor Waugh, scientific director at the IBH, said: “Given the very simple link between crop production and the growing environment, we consider it essential to investigate the genetic processes that drive environmental adaptation.

“About 10,000 years ago barley was transformed by humans from being a wild grass endemic in the middle east into one of the earliest crop plants through the process of domestication.  Then, as humans migrated across the world they took these newly domesticated crops with them, inadvertently and repeatedly selecting those that performed well in the new environments in which they were grown. 

“We want to understand how they became adapted to these new environments and propose that understanding this evolutionary process will hold the keys to developing barleys capable of growing in the new environments that will inevitably result from climate change.”   

The free event Barley: more than just a crop? will be held online on 11 September at 3pm. Visit www.rse-curious.com for more information and to book your place.