Research scientist at Heriot-Watt
university funded by the Scotch Whisky
Association uncovers gene that improves
drought resistance in cereals.
Last year, cereal crops including barley for the whisky industry were
negatively impacted by the warmer drier summer - attributed to climate change
gathering pace. Scientists at Heriot-Watt University, working with the Scotch
Whisky Association have identified a gene responsible for drought resistance in
barley which, it is believed, could help future-proof the cereals industry to
increasingly dry conditions as climate change gathers pace.
Publishing the results of nearly five years of work in the Journal of Plant
Physiology and Biochemistry, the team demonstrated that gene HvMYB1 controls
stress tolerance in cereals such as barley. This is the first time HvMYB1 has
been associated with drought resistance.
Dr Peter Morris from the Institute of Earth and Life Sciences at Heriot-Watt
University conceived the research idea. He successfully secured funding and led
the project team (Dr Charlotte Wendelboe-Nelson and Dr Ross Alexander).
Dr Morris said: "This is a significant finding that will allow more drought
resistance crops to be bred in the future. Drought is already impacting yields
with the European cereals harvest hit particularly hard in 2018. A prolonged,
dry and hot summer significantly impacted yields and quality.
"As climate change gathers pace and we experience more extreme seasons, it is
essential we can maintain continuity of supply. This is significant for key
industries like Scotch whisky, one of the UK’s leading export items. Our project
focused specifically on barley; one of the three ingredients used in the
production of Scotch whisky.
"Barley has over 39,000 genes, almost double the number for humans, so
characterising one particular gene which promotes drought resistance has been a
considerable challenge. By increasing the expression of this particular gene in
test plants and simulating drought conditions, we’ve been able to prove that
plants in which HvMYB1 is more prominently expressed are able to survive
prolonged periods of drought.
"Genetic variation is essential in plant breeding for resilience so we expect
this research will now be used by plant breeders as a marker for drought
resistance. It will help focus attention on different barley varieties in which
this gene is naturally expressed more prominently. This may lead to greater
variation in the gene pool of crop plants and more drought resistant crops in
"This also has important implications for the wider cereals industry including
the production of wheat, maize and rice."
Dagmar Droogsma, Director of Industry at the Scotch Whisky Association, said:
"The Scotch Whisky industry relies on a sustainable and secure supply of good
quality raw materials, now and in the future. Quality barley is central to the
success of the Scotch whisky industry: approximately 90% of the barley used for
Scotch is sourced from Scotland, with the rest from around the UK and the EU
when necessary. The SWA works closely with specialists at Heriot-Watt
University, and others in the sector, to ensure that the industry is equipped to
adapt to any changes that may arise from a changing climate. We therefore
welcome this research which helps to provide resilience against the effects of
climate change and to sustain the diversity of barley varieties used for Scotch
"Agriculture in Scotland supplies some of the best grain anywhere in the world,
and these recent findings contribute to an industry-wide programme of research
and development which helps to maintain Scotch whisky’s competitive edge as an
iconic Scottish product. The Scotch whisky industry supports 10,000 jobs across
Scotland, and we are proud to have funded this research into a fundamental
element of its supply chain."
The value of cereals to the UK economy is significant. In 2018, the value of
wheat rose by £95 million to £2,084 million while the overall value of barley
rose by £85 million to £957 million as a result of higher prices (up 10%). The
whisky industry is worth £5 billion to the Scottish economy.
The research was funded by the Scotch Whisky Association, which aims to secure
the sustainability of the Scotch whisky industry, and Interface, which matches
businesses with Scotland’s world-leading academic expertise.