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Dna of ancient barley could help modern crops

From Egypt's Upper Nile, a discovery by University of Warwick could assist the development of new varieties of crops to face today's climate change challenges

The researchers, led by Dr Robin Allaby from the University of Warwick's plant research arm Warwick HRI, examined Archaeobotanical remains of ancient barley at Qasr Ibrim in Egypt's Upper Nile.

The first surprise for the researchers was that throughout that period every culture seemed to be growing a two rowed form of barley.
While natural wild barley tends to be two rowed most farmers prefer to grow a much higher yield 6 row version which produces up to 3 times as many grains. That 6 row version has grown for over 8000 years and that was certainly grown in the lower Nile over the same period as Qasr Ibrim was occupied. It was thought that despite the fact that the rest of Egypt used 6 row barley that the farmers of Qasr Ibrim were perhaps deliberately choosing to import 2 rowed barley but the researchers could not understand why that would be so.

They also found that the DNA evidence showed that the two rowed barley at the site wasn't the normal wild two eared barley but a mutation of the more normally cultivated six rowed barley that had changed into a two ear form that had continued to be cultivated for around three millennia.

Dr Robin Allaby said: "There may have been a natural selection pressure that strongly favoured the two-row condition. One such possible cause we are currently investigating is water stress. Qasr Ibrim is located in the upper Nile which is very arid relative to the lower Nile where six-row remains are found, and studies have shown that two-row can survive water stress better than six-row"

He concluded that: "This finding has two important implications. Such strong selection pressure is likely to have affected many genes in terms of adaptation. Archaeogenetic study of the DNA of such previously lost ancient crops could confirm the nature of the selection pressure and be very valuable in the development of new varieties of crops to help with today's climate change challenges."

by S. C.
03 august 2009, Technical Area > Science News

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