Barley: more than just a crop?

Publication Date
Professor Robbie Waugh
Dr Davide Bulgarelli
Dr Sarah McKim
Professor Des Thompson
Our panel explore how science is working towards creating better barley to meet the challenges of food security and environmental change.

Barley is the fourth most cultivated cereal globally. This crop is a vital contributor of the Scottish economy as barley grains are the key constituents of whisky, Scotland’s national drink and our biggest export.

Dundee is home to the International Barley Hub which includes scientists from the James Hutton Institute (where it is based) and the University of Dundee. They study this important crop to provide knowledge to tackle problems of food security and to develop sustainable production systems against a background of environmental change. In this panel discussion, you will hear from scientists studying different aspects of barley which will let you get under the surface of this crop.

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This transcript has been automatically generated so may feature errors.


Okay, good afternoon, everyone hope you can hear me. Welcome to this Royal Society of Edinburgh event. I’m Professor Des Thompson. I’m a Principal Advisor on biodiversity and science with the government agency NatureScot, and I’m also a Fellow of the Royal Society of Edinburgh. Just a few words about the Royal Society of Edinburgh. It’s our National Academy. It supports and mobilises expertise from across academia, business and the public services, really to make knowledge useful. I was checking actually, the Royal Society of Edinburgh was formed in 1783. And that was the year that the Treaty of Paris was signed, that granted America independence from the United Kingdom. It was also the year that the Herald newspaper formerly the Glasgow Advertiser, first came into play. So if any of you are a newspaper, readers may be interested to know, a herald is one of the oldest newspapers in the world. And in December of that year, William Pitt, the younger became prime minister. So you may not remember when the RSE was formed. But there are some other important events around that time. So it’s terrific to put on this event badged under Curious and we’re really proud of Curious in the Royal Society of Edinburgh because we run a whole series of events, during the middle of early part to middle of September really, range of events, offering insights to some of the world’s leading experts. And I’m delighted to say, we’ve got three of our experts here on an array of a wide array of topics, addressing themes of great interest to people. But the broad theme that we’ve got for this particular Curious event is under the surface, and today we’re going to discuss barley. Now, barley is an absolutely fascinating crop. And you’re going to hear a bit more about it shortly. And probably suffice to say that I say about barley, that it’s one of our most important crops in Scotland, it’s responsible for our greatest and most important national export export, which is whiskey. And we’ll probably hear a bit more about that in due course. But today, we’re going to discuss barley more than just a crop. And we’ve got three fantastic speakers, we’re really fortunate to have three speakers all together. Currently, as you will see talking to one another, happy to be in one another’s presence. The Barley Hub belongs to Dundee University based in the James Hutton Institute. And we’ll probably hear a bit more about that shortly. But first I’m going to hand over to the first of our speakers Professor Robbie Waugh who’s a Fellow of the Royal Society of Edinburgh. And he’s developed practical genetic tools and information resources that are being used globally in barley genetics research by both academic and commercial groups. So Robbie, I’m going to hand over to you. Thanks, Des, and welcome everybody that’s on the line. That’s very good of you to turn up and listen to this talk about are these talks are about barley. So As Des said, my name is Robbie Waugh. I’m a professor of genetics and genomics at the University of Dundee, and I’m the director of an institution out of the James Hutton Institute on the west of Dundee called the International Barley Hub. Now, for those of you who are Scottish, you’ll probably be able to tell that I’m Glaswegian. And I did my degree in Glasgow and botany and biology and came to Dundee here to study bacterial genetics. The title of my thesis actually was on nickel and hydrogen metabolism in Escherichia coli. And after I finished my PhD, I went to the Scottish Crop Research Institute, where I had a position postdoctoral position working on trying to generate transgenic resistance to a virus called Tobacco rattle virus. And soon after I took that position, I was offered another job. And that job was in the genetics department where I was charged with developing a bunch of technologies which allowed us to follow variation in the barley genome between individuals and between populations. Now, that’s this, these technologies are really powerful. And I’ll go on and talk to you a little bit more about them in a minute. But the question I often get asked by people of all ages and from all sectors of society is Why do you work on barley? And why do you do there? And as Des already alluded to, barley is Scotland’s most important crop. We grew about three times more barley than we grow wheat, and about 10 times more body than we grow potatoes. And one of the reasons for that, of course, is that barley, after undergoing a process of control germination, becomes malt and that malt is the raw material that’s used to make beer and whiskey. And we can’t underestimate the importance tonnes of beer and whiskey to the Scottish economy. For example, last year, I believe the revenues here economy were around 6.2 billion pounds, or more making it account for 75% of food and drink exports from Scotland and 25% of the food and drink exports from the UK. And that’s the obvious answer.  The perhaps not so obvious answer is that barley actually actually is a model organism for many other temperate cereals like wheat, and oats, and rye and other temparate grasses. So as I mentioned, when I am when I started, excuse me a second. When I started working at the James Hutton Institute, as it’s now called, not the Scottish Crop Research Institute, I started working on technologies which allowed us to identify variation in the DNA of different strains of barley. And we can use that variation that we detect and the DNA of the of different strains, to ask a whole lot of different questions. For example, how related are individuals? How related are how different are individuals from different populations from across the world? Can we associate some of that DNA variation with genes or traits, which may be of interest to agriculture? Or can we simply develop technologies that the breeding industry, for example, can adopt to improve the rate of genetic gain in barley improvement? So there’s lots of things you can do with that type of information. The area I’m particularly interested in, is the evolution and adaptation of different barley varieties over time, so that the story of evolution and adaptation of barley probably starts around 12,000 years ago, in a period of time called the Neolithic, and an area of the world called the Fertile Crescent. So the Fertile Crescent, is a region which currently encompasses Iran, Iraq, Israel, and Jordan. And in the Neolithic, at that point of time, there was a remarkable change happened in human culture or human societies, where there was a change from hunter gathering lifestyle, to a much more sedentary agricultural lifestyle. And one of the reasons that happened in the Fertile Crescent is because there were a range of crop plants or pseudo crop plants, and pre crop crop plants, if you like the grew wild in that area, and Barley was one of these crops. So barley, and growing wild in the Fertile Crescent, was chosen by some of these early farmers and agriculturalists as an early crop that they could grow to generate food, and other biological resources to sustain their sedentary lifestyle. So one of the things we realised recently, using modern molecular technologies and water molecular genetics technologies is that the change from being a wild species to being a domesticated species, that process that occurred in the Fertile Crescent happened through the mutation of two very closely located genes called brittle‐rachis 1 (Btr1) and brittle‐rachis 2 (Btr2). Now, what that put the title of these genes, or the name of these genes means is that if you get a mutation in one of these genes, then the grain which usually shatters from the inflorescence, and lands on the ground to be germinated again, the subsequent year doesn’t do that anymore. It sticks rigidly to the grain. And that allowed the farmers at the the time to be able to collect much more grain than they would have had been able to if they had to crawl around in the ground, to pick up the seeds that had been shattered to them all over the place. So that that these mutations now, brittle‐rachis 1 (Btr1) and brittle‐rachis 2 (Btr2) are in all cultivated barley is that we draw today, only two mutations, one in one gene and one in the other. However, that’s just the beginning of the story. That part I think I’m interested more in is what happened after the domestication because after domestication, farming spread around Europe, up into the Scandinavia, down into Ethiopia, and across into Asia. And as farming and spread out from the Fertile Crescent, the farmers that were migrating themselves took the seeds they’d grown in the Near East Fertile Crescent. Now of course the environments that they went into are completely different from the environment where they came from. And when they planted the seeds that they brought with them, very often these seeds didn’t grow very well because they weren’t adapted to that environment. However, over time, through multiple planting and multiple selections, they were able to to adapt these crops to the conditions in which they were trying to cultivate them. And what happened basically is that the process I just described for brittle‐rachis 1 happened in many other genes that allowed the crop to adapt to these different environments. And one of the things we’ve been doing for a long time now is trying to identify the changes in some of the genes that have happened, as the barley crop has migrated from a hot, dry environment to environments like Scandinavia, where it’s really rather cold in the winter, and the seasons are very short which the crop can grow. And so the question, one of the questions is, why is that important to agriculture today? And I mean, the answer I would get is, we’re currently undergoing a period of rapid climate change. And what we are trying to argue and what a bunch of our colleagues are also trying to argue is that, if we can understand the changes that have occurred in the past over many 1000s of years, then we may be able to use that information to generate new cultivars or new varieties which can withstand the conditions that we expect, and conditions that we expect to appear due to climate change. So we’ve identified lots of genes. Now, lots of genes are involved in adaptation to different environments, we’ve identified lots of genes that are involved in changing the morphology or the developmental patterns of the crop. And we have identified lots of genes that are involved in conferring some level of tolerance to different environmental stresses. So one of the one of the other questions I guess, the audience may want to ask is, okay, you’re doing all this with barley. But is there any of any relevance outside of the barley crop. And I’ll give you one example of where it is relevant outside the barley crop. And there are actually many examples, but this is an example where a gene was found in an Ethiopian barley, which conferred resistance to a very difficult disease to control called powdery mildew. The gene was called MLO and it’s been used extensively in barley breeding, to provide resistance to powdery mildew all across Europe. Now wheat is very closely related to barley, but there was no natural occurrence of the same type of resistance to powdery mildew in wheat. That was until recently, because only recently am scientists and various organisations around the world, were able to use transgenic biology to recapitulate the MLO phenotype in wheat, and they were also used able to use traditional mutagenesis to overcome that susceptibility to mildew resistance. So what we learn in barley I think, is very relevant to what we can find out about similar traits, or similar features in different crops. And of course, we’re very keen to exploit any information that we do generate in barley in different crops. Now we’re moving into a different phase of research in barley and wheat. And that phase is the genomic era. And genomic is genomics is opening up fantastic opportunities for us not only to exploit DNA sequences, but to understand how phenotypes have arisen and how we can use phenotypic information or genotypic information to manipulate plants and plant breeding programme programmes. And the challenge for us is currently to increase the rate of genetic gain, which means increase the rate at which we can increase yields in the same environments. But also today, I think, particularly in Scotland is to maintain a sustainable supply of high quality barley for most important and most economically viable industries, whiskey and beer. I should say, barley is not just about alcohol, about two thirds of the UK barley crop, just compounded into animal feed. And that animal feed as you will be aware underpins the production of meat and other proteins across this country. So I’ll let some of my other colleagues take over from there.


Great, thanks, Robbie. It’s a it’s really lovely to hear. Hear about this long history that humans have had with barley but I realised Des did you want to say anything before I start, I just kind of jumped in there.


I can tell just keep on going. Presentation Robbie’s so just go for it.


Great. So thanks very much. So I’m also interested in the history of barley, but on a much smaller timescale in terms of the life of a single barley plant so my name is Sarah McKim. I’m a plant developmental biologist, which means I’m interested in how plants grow and develop their bodies over time and how they put their bodies together and then are able to survive and thrive in the environment. And of course, this is really important for to understand for our crop plants, so that ultimately they get to the point of producing grain. And why is it important to understand plant development? Well, it’s the development of the plant that ultimately gives us that grain at the end. So the plant is making decisions throughout its life, in order to produce that grain. But in fact, plants start their lives with very, very little. So if you’ve ever watched a seedling kind of emerge from a, from a grain from a seed, you can see it’s very, very small. So how does that plan end up being the big plant that we can see in the field, that plant starts with just a shoot tip and a root tip, and it has to do all this building after the fact. And so I’m interested in understanding how that happens. And a plant is basically doing that as it’s growing in the soil. It’s adding body parts, like stems, leaves, and ultimately, the flowering parts that end up generating that grain. So why do plants do this? I mean, that was something has always kind of intrigued me. And it’s very, very different from the development that we see in animals. So when animals are born, for example, a chicken hatching from an egg, it has a very distinct body already. So you’ve got limbs, legs, a body head, and animals generally get bigger, whereas plants, as I said, they don’t emerge with a body really at all. And they’re making all those decisions after birth. And so why would plants decide to do this kind of this kind of strategy. And part of the reason is, because plants, unlike animals, they can’t leave. So they are planted wherever they’re planted in a field or in the wild, and they after they they are born and they start to grow, they have to adapt to wherever they are. And so Robbie’s kind of mentioned this a bit about how important plant adaptation is, for their success in a given environment. And so part of what I’m interested in understanding now is that dialogue between how a plant decides on its body, what that body’s gonna look like, and how that’s influenced by environmental cues. So because plants can’t leave, if the climate gets changes quite a lot, they’re very vulnerable to that, right. So we can see that with restraint, fast changes in climate. However, because plants are in this dialogue with their environment in terms of how they’re developing their bodies, they can make decisions so that they make the best body they can in that environment. So they’re very sensitive, they have strategies in order to change the way they develop. So they’re very responsive to their environment. And so part of the research that I’m trying to do is to understand the developmental pathways that a plant is is undergoing in order to build its body and how its how it’s responding to environmental cues. So I ended up in, in in barley through studying other plants. I’m, I’m Canadian originally and I did my PhD on a tiny little mustard plant called arabidopsis, which was kind of the key model plant in the plant development world for a very long time. But it was after actually meeting with with Robbie, when I was deciding on what my own research programme would be that he convinced me that Barley was a really great model plant to study cereals. And I think he’s been he’s been right. And we’ve been able to exploit a lot of the technologies that have been developed here by Robbie’s team and other people at the James Hutton Institute, in order to in order to understand barley development much better. And so I’ll just give you a couple examples of some of the research projects that we work on in my lab. So we were able to use these technologies to identify genes. And one gene in particular we’ve been working on a lot is like a master gene that controls so many different aspects of plant development. It’s controlling grain development, it’s controlling how the flowers themselves open and close during flowering. And it’s also controlling how long a barley stem is. So if you’ve ever seen in a barley field, you know as barley is growing, it gets it undergoes this incredible stem elongation process. However, if that stem is very long, and you get the grain on top of it, and it’s very windy or rainy, that can completely fall over. And it’s called lodging and that leads to a lot of losses to farmers. And so we were really interested in this gene because it seems to prevent the stem from getting too long and keeps this keeps the plant nice and squat and short, which is which is really good for for a top loaded cereal. And so we were studying that very interested in understanding how it’s actually controlling stem development. And we fortuitously found out, because the growth cabinet had overheated, that this gene that’s controlling stem development is also protecting the plant from heat and drought stress. And so big push right now is to understand how is that gene affecting that the tolerance of the plant. So we’re really excited about how we might be able to use and understand this gene more to improve the resiliency of barley to these climactic changes that can be quite extreme. The most recent project in my lab, it kind of hints that at this under the surface, it’s actually a surface characteristic in barley. So plants like us, they have a skin so they have a covering on all of their organs, that is that are facing the air. And that skin is covered with waxy compounds. So you might be able to see this on plants, some plants that are growing and really dry or high light conditions that might look kind of whitish, and they’re waxy. And so that wax, it’s kind of like a sunscreen and also prevent dehydration. And so barley does this too, it’s we’re really interested in understanding this waxy coating. And, and we started to use these tools, we cloned these genes. And what we discovered was that the genes that were controlling the waxy coating, are also controlling other features on this on the plant skin on the plant epidermis, including these little holes, these little gas pores that are all over plant surfaces. And this is how plants like barley, all land plants, are exchanging gases with their environment, like carbon dioxide, water, and oxygen. So this is the mechanism that plants uptake carbon dioxide, if you’ve heard of plants, being able to remove carbon dioxide from the air, this is how they’re doing it. And they’re doing that to build their bodies. And so very intrigued by this discovery, because it’s suggesting that there are potentially a small number of genes that are actually controlling a whole bunch of different characteristics on the plant surface that are important for plants to conserve water, as well as uptake, carbon dioxide, and so we’re now looking to see if when that gene changes how that changes the surface of the plant. And does that make the plant can we envision a plant that would be very resilient under these these drought, these these, you know, high warm temperature conditions, and also still be able to exchange gases, so that it can grow and develop. So I hope I’ve convinced you that plant development is really fascinating. I hope you look at plants a bit differently, including barley and see this, the plants around you as being products of this big building programme that plants are going through in their lives and, and our understanding that is so critical to understand how we end up with grain at the end. Thanks very much,


Sarah, that was fantastic. No, can we hand over to Davide  and I gather you’re a bit of a mystery solver. Davide in terms of the type of work you’re carrying, carry out. So let’s hear about it. Thank you.


So a very good afternoon to everyone or morning depending on the timezone. And thanks to us for for this introduction. And yes, I’m really curious and understanding how plants like barley are able to discriminate between microbial friends and foe and how this may impact on the application and the production of crops in agriculture. So my name is Davide Bulgarelli and for the one connected from Scotland, they can clearly tell that I’m not from Scotland. In fact, I was born and raised in Italy, where I did my studies in Reggio Emilia, is basically the cradle of the parmigiano reggiano cheese and probably exposure to this agricultural area, motivated my curiosity for for studying plants in the first place. And I studied barley during my undergraduate and PhD studies in Italy before moving to Germany, where I have been a postdoctoral scientist in a place called Max Planck Institute for Plant Breeding Research where for the first time I was exposed to a very, what could be considered a very curious phenomenon. So plants develops also below ground so the root system is exposed to soil, which is one of the most rich and diverse microbial ecosystem on the planet. So, you may you may have heard of the fact that one teaspoon of soil may contains millions of different microorganisms. And some of them are actually helpful and can help plants and grow and develop better while others are a bit more greedy in the sense they can take from plants and give back nothing so I’m creating phenomenon called diseases and basically he losses for crops so it becomes critical to understanding our plants can discriminate between these two categories of microorganism because it’s really central to the fundamental aspects of biology and as said, as implication from for production. But if you think carefully at the fact that plants are developing below ground, and the root system is the way plants acquire mineral nutrients from soil, and you have micro organisms, a community of microorganisms interacted with roots, I think that is fair to do research what’s going on in the digestive tract of vertebrates in our own gut with the with the microbiota populating this environment. So this is the way we look at these. This type of interaction. What we discovered at that time is that, despite this apparent chaos of microorganism, the plant can act as an orchestra conductor, and drive the selection of at least part of this community for the benefit of the plant. And this is a in my, in my vision is a fascinating observation. Because if we get to know how plants can carry out the selection, so in other words, can we can identify the genes underpinning the selection, then we may well be in the position to rewire those interaction for the benefit of the plants, perhaps selecting plants that are less reliant on chemical inputs in the agro-ecosystem, in particular fertiliser, and basically use microbes that are naturally present in soil to supply at least in part for this, for this input. Another time, I was working with this model plant Arabidopsis that Sara illustrated before, and I was quite excited with the result that I gathered. But there was always this thing in my mind that if you are training biology, there is this the sentence that you’ve been exposed to that nothing in biology makes sense, if not in the light of evolution. And as Robbie has mentioned before, a hallmark of the evolution of cultivated plants are the processes of domestication and crop selection, which progressively differentiated ancestral system from other cultivated varieties. And arabidopsis has not been subjected to these processes. So perhaps I was missing something in the interaction between plant and microbeads. So if I would have kept working with this model plant. Conversely, barley is a phenomenon morally from this point of view. Because still these days in the area where barley was domesticated in the first place, you have wild ancestors that are assessable, for cultivation. And one of the fascinating aspects is that you can create hybrid with this wild ancestor, and mother cultivated variety, and have basically an experimental population to study multiple biological phenomenon, including the interaction between plant and microbes in soil within this framework of domestication. And that was a motivation for me to move from Germany to Scotland, to, to apply some of the tools that at that time, we are under development at the University of Dundee at the James Hutton Institute, to the biological phenomenon that I’m interested in. And I’m particularly thankful to the Royal Society of Edinburgh, because thanks to a personal fellowship from the, from the Royal Society, I could install and develop my own group at the University of Dundee, then fast forward to 2013, we were able to capitalise in full of the innovation that were described by Robbie and Sarah, to study what still to these days is, is a relatively young characterised aspects of the interaction between barley and the environment. And basically, by understanding the distribution of the taxonomic composition of the microbes present at the interface between barley roots and soil, essentially, who is there, and what those microbes can eventually perform for the plant’s interal functional potential, linking this piece of information with the information on the barley genome that were, let’s say that they’ve been developmening. These days, we were able to basically narrow down our areas of the body genome called loci that are a particularly relevant for the recruitment of microorganism. And we are at the point that thanks to the resolution that these technologies have been able to achieve in terms of resolving the barley genome, we were able to identify what we call candidate gene. So though, those are the ones that you would like to prioritise for follow up investigation and studies for their potential to shape the microbial communities that are present that the root soil interface and this is, was one of the first step that the studies conducted in this direction in a in a complex plant species like barley. So where we would like to go with these discoveries is as, I noted in the initial part of my discussion, is that now that we know what are those candidates, we are trying to modify them or manipulate the genetics of the plant in order to see whether we can create plants that will be rationally less reliant on the chemical inputs that are the farmers nowadays used to apply to the environment to ensure a profitable yield. And one of the example that I often make in this type of discussion is the use of nitrogen. Probably the audience will be aware of the phenomenon of fertilisation, whereby farmers are applying chemical compounds to show to promote the growth, sorry to promote the growth of the plant. Among these fertiliser among this chemical fertiliser. Nitrogen is the probably the most the most important one, or at least the one that is limiting crop productivity globally. And this is an important paradox, because the atmosphere we breathe, is composite for the vast majority of nitrogen gas. But plants can’t use this as an element for growth they require a particular form that is often provided from soil. And this is the result of a process that is called the arbor process, which is an energy intensive process. And according to the estimate between 1% and 2% of the global energy every year is dedicated to the production of this synthetic nitrogen fertiliser. Microbes in soil can contribute to the what is the nitrogen mutation of the plants because they sit in what is called nitrogen biogeochemical cycles so that the cycling of these elements in the environment and again, if if we’ll be able to have plants capable of engaging with microbes, that are either capable of retaining nitrogen in soil or providing them to the plants, these will allow us to to save an enormous amount of energy and not to mention the fact that the application of fertiliser is often as a as a tack price from an environmental standpoint, because it’s represented by the pollution of water bodies that is often associated to this is a misuse of, of those fertilisers. And obviously, this is one of our our dreams so or where we would like to bring our research in the years to come. And at the same time, there is a number of other processes that soil microbes can perform towards the what is called decarbonisation of agriculture that may be controlled, at least in part by the plant. And because farmers and plant breeders have never selected plants to engage with the soil. What is the soil microbiota, we believe that it’s an enormous amount  an enormous potential for discoveries, both in basic science and translational application of this of this field. And with that, I would like to conclude my talk.


Absolutely brilliant, thank you. Well, put out an enthusiastic trio we have it’s just brilliant. You’re talking so so wonderfully about your research. We’ve got a number of questions both online and submitted in advance. I wonder if I can just read the first question from Craig White, which is, which other methods are there available to improve the productivity of barley out with genetics? And what are the economic and behavioural perspectives on the these? He’s really asking what can we do beyond genetics? So who would like to kick off on that? Robbie, perhaps. Thank you. And well, obviously, there’s everything you can do to address the kind of questions that Davide talked about. So we know already that if you don’t apply enough nitrogen to a crop and your yield will decrease. So there are physiological approaches that can be used to improve yield we have in this country, or we do in this country practice something called intensive agriculture, where we already apply effectively optimal amounts of nutrients, micronutrients and macronutrients. And, as the leader said, you know, we’re at a position now where we add so much nitrogen to the soil that there are impacts on things like our waterways, with nitrification and various other compounds which are problematic. So there are agronomic interventions that can be made. There are a whole bunch of early warning systems that can be developed to predict protect against disease. Yeah, so we’re not we’re not confined to using genetics, but genetics is a big component of improving crop production. Thank you does Sarah or Davide? Do you want to add to that?


I suppose, Robbie’s touched on Just a bit but but in terms of detection of plant disease, but also the conditions of the plants, there’s a lot of opportunities there for kind of drone technology, remote sensing technology. So that’s not something that that I work on. But I’ve definitely seen that field grow. And I think, I think that’s, you know, it’s precision agriculture. So instead of, you know, treating, treating a whole field the same way you kind of see it as little microclimates is my understanding so that you can be very precise in the interventions that you’re applying. It could be something else to mention.


That’s great. Thank you. Just until any more questions come in, I love by the way, this term blogging, Sarah, I’ve never come across that I’ve spoken with farmers. But there’s this expression blogging is this the collapse of


lodging, you’re very close, it’s lodging with emotion. And it was it was a term I wasn’t familiar with before I started working on cereals. But you do see it after a rainstorm in Scotland, you will see it as well. And it is when when the and it’s it’s a a way to predict how successful barley breeding has been. And you see it in wheat as well. So as more and more grain is formed on the top of it of a stock. If you’re more grain and the grains also fatter, it’s heavier, which is great for the farmer, so you’ve got more starch in that grain. But it means that it’s top heavy. So so and so we have you have problems with lodging, just something just physically, the mechanical strength isn’t there to hold it up. When you have a lot of wind and rain, you can also get something called necking, where the grain had was just called a spike in in barley and wheat could snap off. So there is like almost a biomechanics, to take into account in terms of, you know, the strength of the cell walls and the stem. So there are other groups that are that are working on that question as well. But it is it is a problem that was addressed to some degree in the Green Revolution if people are familiar with that term. So that involves a lot of fertiliser and different farming practices. But at its core, it was a developmental change. So semi dwarf cereals were selected in maize and rice and wheat and in barley because they lodged less, and they required kind of less, less input. So but the Green Revolution varieties, there are some aspects of them that aren’t so beneficial. So there’s always interest in understanding kind of different routes to get at short plants. But something that was really surprising to me when I started my research is that even though short plants are really important, we don’t know that much about how cereal and grass stems grow compared to other types of plants. So I think there’s there’s a lot that we can still learn and improve there.


Yeah, that’s fascinating. And in fact, Fiona Newton just come through to us just clarifying or letting us know that when cereal crops collapsed due to the wind and rain, we refer to this as crops being laid, which is a term I have heard of myself because I’m great. So that’s fine tem, and actually the rigidity of the crop is very important for many of the birds and other wildlife that use barley and in fact, there’s one very important but endangered bird called the Corn Bunting, which is popularly known as that bird of the barley. You know, they they sing it very unusual bird. The males tend to have harems of female. And it’s very important for them to be able to display from fence posts or from rigid stalks of barley. So actually, barley has got a fascinating invertebrate life associated with it, which is so important for bird life throughout Scotland. One thing that’s that struck me in the presentations from the three of you is that you’ve you work and have worked very closely together and the barley hub itself as a sort of research entity, is that unique, do we have another such entity in the world? I mean, so you’ve mentioned you’ve you’ve, you’ve sort of worked abroad, indeed Davide has as well. But do we have another outfit comparable with the barley hub? So if I can, if I can answer that there’s no directly comparable organisation in the world. There are organisations that have fairly strong barley research efforts. But to my knowledge there’s none really that try to link academic work with the commercial sector with a role in education and economy. So I think in respect of an organisation itself is quite unique. And of course, I mean, as I mentioned right at the beginning, beginning of my short presentation, there’s good reasons for it to be in Scotland. And there’s good reasons to support it in Scotland, from an economic and social point of view, you know, there’s more than 40,000 people working in rural economies or rural economies that are associated with a whiskey industry. So it’s really important social as well as economic value. And that’s why the barley hub should be in Scotland. But you know, you mentioned that absolutely, that phenomenally important workforce working on barley. But looking ahead at climate change, and thinking about the subtle, wetter and more extreme conditions we’re getting. Looking ahead, what’s what’s the prognosis for for barley, and therefore the sort of challenges we face in terms of sustaining the barley crop? I’d like to hear from you all on on this, if possible. Sure. So yeah, we have a climate scientist colleague called Mike Reddington, who has done quite a lot of work on this. And poor Mike would tell us that the prognosis if you like, for Scotland in the short term until 2050 is good, that we’ll probably see increases and barley yields over time, up to a threshold point where if climate change continues on its current trajectory, then yields will probably plummet. So, Scotland’s kind of is an interesting country, in that only about 8% of the land area is classified as suitable for arable farming or high cultural production. Of that 8% percent, I would say 95% maybe more than that is already marginal land grade two land at best. And in that grade two lands, not many crops will actually be able to produce their yield potential, in particular wheat does not meet does not meet its yield potential, whereas barley tends to perform a little bit better. So I mean, what I can say longer term is that depends what our longer term is, if the longer term is 30 years, then then the prognosis good. Yields will increase. If you stretch that out to 80 years, then 80 years time, the prognosis is not so good, simply because of the changing climate. But that could be addressed by starting to grow barley in the winter, rather than merely in the spring, which is what we currently do for the quality of the premium markets. So there is an option for us if you like to change the lifestyle of the crop, to match that changing environment, to still allow us to produce the level of the level of grain and yield that we need to sustain the major end use industries of the crop in this country. Thanks, Robbie, I’ll come back to you on one thing on that, but sooner do you want to comment further?


Well, I, I think there is a lot of reason to be optimistic. But I think you need to be proactive. So I agree with, you know, what Robbie was saying about the projections in the short term. But I also think, at least personally, having just travelled back to Canada this summer, you know, things are changing enormously in other parts of the world. And I, I would like to think that that, you know, our predictions about what will happen here, are, are pretty sound, but I think we have to be prepared to be very responsive. And I think by understanding more about the we do barley is just fantastic, because it does grow in more different types of climates than any other temperate cereal. So barley is really good at growing in different places. So I think the more we understand about what those tight those varieties are and what they’re they’re optimised to be the better placed we are to, well, not me personally, but you know, the more information farmers will have to know what varieties would be best to plant and also to generate those new varieties with improved resiliency.


It’s great Davide do you want to add to that?


Well, yes. So, I also say like Sir, I would like to bring this thing the answer to this question beyond Scotland. And certainly an element of concern is what is called soil health. So the capacity of soil of sustaining profitable crop and provide the farmers so barley and these values is threatened by climatic modification. In particular, for what I’m studying, there are two levels. So the impact of climatic modification on the crop itself and the impact of climatic modification on the microbial community It is populating soil, which then create a series of interaction that we have still to predict in full. But I think the barley has enormous potential from this point of view to mitigate some of these negative circumstances, because, as mentioned by my colleagues is extremely flexible in terms of adaptation to the environment, and when probably will be the time to move crop production to suboptimal soil. So barley probably is the one that is performing better or certainly better than other cereal like, like with the type of iron requirements. So probably this scenario where we can directly intervene to mitigate, let’s say, the negative impact of climatic modification alongside the fact that we should really try to reduce the direct impact of climatic modification.


Davide, before I go back to Robbie, I mean, Scotland has stated that we want to be the world leader in regenerative agriculture. So soil health is supremely important as part of that. And of course, the James Hutton Institute as a whole are sort of world leaders in soil biodiversity and soil ecosystem processes. But where does barley sit compared with other crops as a sort of generator or enhancer of soil health? Is it is it one of the best cereals? Or are there others that we should be thinking about in terms of regenerative agriculture?


With regenerative agriculture? Certainly I will say the flexibility in adapting to the environment is, is the plus is the plus of barley as a as a crop. At the same time, we shouldn’t really focus the concept of regenerative agriculture in one single crop or one single cereal. Speaking of regenerative agriculture, certainly legumes, so plants that have this phenomenal capacity for engaging in association with so called nitrogen fixing that are very effective in grabbing nitrogen entities in the atmosphere and converting to ammonium, which is what plants want to grow. Those play a critical role. And we can’t ignore that, right? I mean, we should really looking at how barley can integrate with with other crops, including certain including legumes and other minor crops in into those processes.


Will there ever be a time when barley is a nitrogen fixer? Is that something that’s on the horizon?


is for me this question


Yes. Then we’ll go to Robbie Yeah,


I think he’s in the agenda. So there are groups, several groups that are looking at engineering cereal, capable of fixing fixing nitrogen. If you were to ask me when this is going to happen, I won’t, I won’t be able to give you an answer. In terms of number of years, certainly, this is also an area to look at. But I would say not the only one, because one thing is the capability of fixing nitrogen for the plants. But the downside for reasons of processes like nitrogen fertilisation is also the loss of fertiliser from the soil environment. And therefore having plants and microbes around them capable of trapping them or limit these losses would be, I would say, equally important, especially in the light of the concept of green nitrogen that we may eventually expand. So I would say, I wouldn’t put all our effort in having a cereal capable of fixing nitrogen, there are ways probably actually faster in terms of paying dividends to regenerative agriculture that can be pursued already right now.


It’s fascinating. And Robbie, you mentioned that or inferred that there are opportunities for barley expand expansion into marginal Hill ground, marginal Hill ground agricultural areas, many ways the squeezed middle for agriculture, and I wondered if you could just paint us a picture of the sort of landscape of the sort of place where as we approach net zero and 2045, we might have barley thriving, where we don’t have barley at the moment. So I think when I was referring to marginal lands, barley already grows on marginal lands in Scotland because the land is the land capable frag culture is not particularly rich. Here. I mean, there will be other lands which are in the foothills, I guess, which are currently not used for agriculture. But they become difficult to cultivate, as you know, because you’ve got to get machinery into these areas to actually cultivate the crop in the first place. There are areas on the fringes of the desert in Africa that barely still survives, because it’s just able to, it’s called the last crop before the deserts and it’s called Have the last crop before the desert for a reason. It’s because it is it’s the only one that can survive in these environments. And, you know, I think there will be cases where barley can move into less productive environments in the UK perhaps. Or maybe as the environments change down south to start growing more barley than wheat, because the wheat does not perform particularly well, but the barley can survive. So as far as Scotland is concerned, when I was referring to marginal lands, I was meaning the current lands early on. And you know, what we could have said, and what I perhaps should have said, is that already in Scotland, our barley yields are some of the highest in the world. So we’re already almost working at an optimal yield, and potential in Scotland. That’s great. But you’re clearly quite optimistic in terms of looking ahead at climate change and the sort of prospects for barley in the sort of short to medium term. So I think for me, the objectives have changed slightly over the last 10 to 15 years, and that we’re not as fixated on increasing yield per se. But we’re becoming much more fixated upon is maintaining sustainable yields, and enriching the soils and maintaining the environment and our economy, while at the same time so that the focus has changed away from this purely yield driven and quality driven goal, if you like towards things which are much more I won’t  say tactile, but are much much more integrated with a broader environmental system. Biodiversity, for example.  Yeah, no, that’s that’s fantastic. And that’s come across extremely clearly. We have a question from Nabuk to you, Davide. Please, is there any special plant species good for a mycorrhizal networking with barley?


That’s a very, very interesting question. So definitely, barley is a plant that can engage in interaction with mycorrhizal. These these are basically micro organs that are fungi that are growing below ground. So unlike bacteria, filamentous development, and then essentially what they do, they projecting the surface of roots, and therefore the era that plants can explore, to acquire mineral that’s a very efficient and very old form of symbiosis between plants, and microbes, and probably one related to the transition from the, let’s say, aquatic environment to the terrestrial land. So barley can’t do that. The point is, that sometimes is not really keen on doing that. And this has been demonstrated by different different studies. And, and this is partly due to the type of soil plants are growing as their number of species or interaction between bonds and other species that could lead to this micro recession. I think that there is no general consensus. So I can’t really answer this question directly. What I can say, though, is that, I feel that I can anticipate that there won’t be one size fits all type of scenario, it pretty much depend on the type of soil plants are growing in. And therefore, these may dictate the type of partners for any engagement.


Fantastic. We’ll time is against us, we’ve just got a few minutes left. So I’ve got one question, the same question to put to the three of you, if I may. And I’ll start with me with you, Sarah. What’s the prize? For your research? Looking ahead? What is it that you’re going to jump out of your seat and go Eureka, give us an example of what it is that’s on the horizon that’s going to get you just more excited than you are at the moment with your research.


There’s so many things, but one thing that is most recently exciting for me is I want to understand how on the epidermis of barley, how that cells knows what type of characteristic to be. So how much wax to deposit so that and and kind of what identity it has, whether it’s one of these gas pores or a prickle cell and I want to understand how that communication is happening. Because something I didn’t mention so much before is that these are all adaptations of plants on land. So plants used to live in in the water and they’ve moved on land and when they did so they acquired all of these abilities to deposit this wax to make these special cells and even though I’m working in barley, which is far down the line evolutionary-wise, I think we’ve discovered something that’s very deep It’s very conserved across all plants. And so to understand that trigger, that that enables all of those, those kinds of features to be coordinated together, I think would be most interesting to me.


Fascinating, fantastic. It is niche, but it’s fascinating.


So I would like to go back to the parallel is my draw between the microbes growing at the root soil interface of plant and barley, and the microbes growing our own digestive tract. So the concept of personalised medicine whereby depending on the body or the diet, you have a defined intervention from medical standpoint. So, if you were if you are able to essentially crack the code and define what makes a bodily plant successful in a given soil, then we will be able to the design or identify or advise farmers to grow at that particular variety in that particular soil, regardless of what would be maybe the, the the characteristic of it, or probably the the real price is that predicting what kind of crops we need to grow in five years time taking into consideration the modification that will occur and I can show it for us, this will be my


Fantastic. Davide,I’m struck listening to you and your earlier presentation. But really, there are conversations, ecological, chemical, tactile, all sorts of conversations taking place, under the soils between the different organisms, it’s absolutely fascinating insight you’re giving us and Robbie, what’s your prize, what’s going to have you jumping out of your seat.


So I’m going to go back 12,000 years ago. And during that process of domestication, there was an enormous and enormous bottleneck, genetic bottleneck where almost all of the genetic variation of the species was left behind in the wild germ plasm. And we’re only using a tiny amount of the available genetic diversity that may be available to us to maintain or to improve barley cultivation into the future. What I would really like to see is the development of technologies or techniques that allow us to identify beneficial variation, in the unadapted wild gene pool that we can use to improve our crops. And that variation will have been left behind during the domestication and adaptation processes that I mentioned previously. If we can do that, I think that the prospects are really quite rosy and quite good for increasing or maintaining barley production into the future.


Gosh, that’s, that’s utterly transformational, what you’re describing there. Sounds fantastic. Listen, I think we’ll draw a line under that. It’s been an absolutely fascinating conversation. We’ve learned so much about barley, I mean, I, I’m just gobsmacked at the research that’s being done. And we’re so fortunate to have the three of you working quite literally at the cutting edge of this both below the surface and above the surface. So thank you, Sarah, Robbie and Davide for a fascinating conversation. Thank you to Kate and Lesley Ann, I’m on the staff of the Royal Society of Edinburgh for supporting this presentation. Thank you to the audience, some lovely remarks coming through here. Really reflecting the depth of the presentations we’ve had and really acknowledging great work you’re doing. Please do join further curious events. We’ve got a website twitter feed. Putting out a whole series of further presentations there’s another three today under the curious banner. But once again, let me thank our speakers for an absolutely fascinating series of presentations. Thanks very much, everyone. Enjoy the rest of your day.


Thank you. Thank you. Bye bye