August 1, 2019, by Lexi Earl

Working between the field and the lab: understanding barley

August 1st is Lammas, a day traditionally celebrating the first harvests of the season. Summer wheat, oats, rye, and barley grains are all harvested from now until October, and the first loaf of bread is baked with the new grains. How does the beginning of the harvest season affect our researchers and their work?

Dr Guillermina Mendiondo, Future Food Nottingham Research Fellow, works on barley, exploring how barley senses its environment, and the changes that occur in the field. Guille works both in the lab, and in the field so we spoke to her about what is happening with her barley plants at this time of year.

Guille stands in a field of yellow-green barley

Guillermina Mendiondo in the field of barley in mid-July

What have you been growing in the field this year?

I’ve been growing spring barley. This is a barley used mainly for animal feed and malting. I work with this barley because I have identified non-GMO mutant lines that we would like to test the performance of in the field. This year, I am testing two different mutant lines, and two or three alleles per mutant against the wild type. We have 64 plots growing the mutants and the wild types, and each plot is one square metre. We also work with this barley in the lab, investigating what happens when certain genes are cloned or silenced.

It is incredibly useful to work in both the lab and in the field because we can see how changes we make at the genetic level affect plant growth in the real environment. Watching what happens in the field feeds back into my lab work, allowing us to change things according to how plants have fared in the fields. When we see a particular phenotype in the field, we can investigate which gene this is associated with in the lab. This then links to breeders and growers, making changes that can benefit agricultural crops.

How have the plants fared?

The plants look okay despite a lot of rain at the beginning of the season. Heavy rain early on in the season can affect plant growth, ripening, and harvesting. Last week there were a number of heavy thunderstorms and some plants are damaged, having fallen flat (lodged). Lodged plants can easily become infected, and we have to try and restore the plants to standing upright again. This affects the harvest, which is now upon us!

Field of barley knocked over following thunderstorms

Barley lodged after the storm. This makes it susceptible to disease.

How has the weather (rainy June, hot July, thunderstorms) affected your plants?

The weather is becoming challenging for crops. The plants are doing well this year but the unpredictability of the weather seriously affects our ability to plan, grow, and harvest crops. Some crops are more resistant to the changeable weather, and it is fascinating to see that in the field.

What does this mean for your science?

In order to do the experiments back in the lab, I need to obtain good quality seeds from the plants in the field. Unfortunately when the weather conditions are not adequate during harvest time, there may be a compromise in the quality of the grains. That is why thunderstorms and the unpredictable weather, like we had last week, are so damaging to our crops.

Barley now standing straight again

Barley after being restored to standing position

What happens now?

This year, we will harvest seed for bulking and germination experiments in the lab. Bulking provides seeds for the following year, and for the experiments we will run in the growth room and labs. Next year, my new PhD Student Jasmine Litter (iCASE BBSRC) will continue to evaluate the performance of barley mutants in a pathway that looks very promising to breed crops.

How do you detect differences in the plants?

In order to understand how different genes affect plant growth we focus on examining: duration of growing stages, the number of tillers, flowering times, height, grain numbers, and yield. This is done through actual physical counting of samples of grain in the field, following a standardised growth development scale. We examine the differences between the wild type and the mutants, or between different genotypes. Counting grains allow farmers to predict how much grain they will have at harvest, and allows us to monitor the differences between our mutant strains of barley and the wild type.

The barley harvest will begin in a few weeks, and then these grains will be used in experiments in the lab to understand certain traits that are beneficial for farmers.

Posted in Food Research