InterGrain digs deep into boosting barley

EXCLUSIVE Cally DupeCountryman
The University of Queensland associate professor and principal research fellow Lee Hickey and InterGrain barley breeder Hannah Robinson.
Camera IconThe University of Queensland associate professor and principal research fellow Lee Hickey and InterGrain barley breeder Hannah Robinson. Credit: The University of Queensland

WA plant breeder InterGrain will join forces with two major Australian universities to improve barley “yield stability among climate variability” after being awarded a lucrative Commonwealth grant.

The project — titled Digging Deeper to Improve Yield Stability — was one of 65 awarded a share of $30 million in the latest round of the Federal Linkage Projects grants, which are funded by Australian Research Council.

It is the first time InterGrain has been chosen as the major industry partner for a Linkage Project grant, which provide support to projects investigating solutions for various challenges.

InterGrain researchers will work with those from The University of Queensland and the Australian National University to carry out the $780,000, four-year project, set to include field trials in WA.

InterGrain plant breeder Dr Hannah Robinson said the project aimed to create breeding solutions that harnessed the “hidden” part of the plant, roots, to support the development of more productive crops to battle climate variability.

She hoped the project would generate new insights into the biology and genetics of root development by applying cutting-edge phenotyping and genomics technologies.

The project could lead to novel methodologies to accelerate breeding for diverse production environments, with direct applications in barley and other major cereals including wheat and oats.

“There has been a lot of interesting research about how the different shape of the barley root system can impact the amount of moisture and nutrients that can be taken up on the soil,” Dr Robinson said.

She said the project was about creating better root systems for changing Australian climates.

“This project is about better understanding the different shapes of our barley germplasm within our program,” Dr Robinson said.

“We are also looking at the genetics underlying so we can influence future breeding to adapt root systems to our environments.”

There has been a lot of interesting research about how the different shape of the barley root system can impact the amount of moisture and nutrients that can be taken up on the soil.

Hannah Robinson

A big part of the research will focus on creating an “optimum root shape” for varying soil profiles in WA and more broadly.

“This should improve water extraction, nutrient extraction, and ultimately improve yield in the variable climates we have in Australia,” Dr Robinson said, adding the fundamental research would allow InterGrain to deploy the technology in its breeding.

Dr Robinson is the first to admit that roots are “only one trait” taken into account when “improving adaption to the changing climate”.

But she said the project was expected to “develop a lot of methodologies that can be translated into other traits”.

“Really it is about trying to improve our yield stability in these changing climates,” Dr Robinson said.

“You can see quite a lot of variation in the root systems in barley, from very wide to very narrow roots.

“It is about validating what is the best for each soil profile... and making sure we are breeding varieties with the best root systems across Australia.”

Dr Robinson said field trials would kick off in WA next year, with the Merredin Dryland Research Institute likely to be one of the sites.

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