By Johanna Montanari – Jul 16,2019

AMMAN — A research team from Martin Luther University Halle-Wittenberg (MLU) in Germany has recently bred a new line of barley that achieves good crop yields even under harsh heat and drought conditions.

Their study was originally published in “Scientific Reports” in April, and further advertised in a press release by the university on July 10.

MLU researchers created the new line of barley by crossing a common variety of barley with 25 types of wild barley. Next, they planted 48 genetically different plants in five very different locations around the world — one of them in Karak — and observed the growth of the plants while examining their genetic material more closely. They then compared the results of the new lines with native varieties from a control group.

The study was motivated by the challenges of climate change and was carried out for the benefit of food security, MLU Professor Klaus Pillen said on the university’s website. “Wild barley has adapted to adverse environmental conditions over millions of years,” he writes, explaining the reasons behind the decision to combine the advantageous properties of common barley and wild barley.

Michael Baum, director of the Biodiversity and Crop Improvement Programme at the International Centre for Agricultural Research in Dry Areas, told The Jordan Times that “wild barley originated from the Middle East… This is why today, still lots of diverse wild barley are found there”.

“In Jordan, we need grains that are resistant to terminal heat and drought. But at the same time, winters can be quite cold. So, frost tolerance is needed to some extent as well,” he said on Monday.

A team from the Department of Horticulture and Crop Science at the University of Jordan was both responsible for planting the barley in Karak, some 140km south of Amman, and directly involved in the project.

Other planting locations included Dundee in the UK, Halle in Germany, Dubai in the UAE and Adelaide in Australia.

Each place has very different environmental challenges, including very salty, dry soils in Adelaide and Dubai, and heat and drought in Karak and Dubai. The aim of each location was to find out which gene variants were the most advantageous for that particular climate.

Already, the best barley in Halle has produced up to 20 per cent higher yields than native plants.

“Our study also shows that the timing of plant development is extremely important,” Professor Pillen said. “In northern Europe, it is more advantageous for plants to flower later. The closer you get to the equator, it’s better for plants to develop much faster.”

The findings of the study might also be beneficial to other cereal varieties, such as wheat. It takes 10 to 15 years until new varieties are certified for the agricultural market, but humanity immediately profits from this kind of research, according to Baum.

“The method to crossing common varieties of grain with wild types has been used for decades,” Baum said. “It becomes very interesting now to develop barley lines better adapted to climate change by looking for genes that were subjected to higher heat and drought in the past.”

According to the UN Food and Agriculture Organisation’s Corporate Statistical Database, barley is fourth most widely produced grain behind maize, rice and wheat. It is mostly used as animal fodder, as well as a source of fermentable material for certain distilled beverages.