Barley roots targeted in UQ research

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A four-year research project will try to determine the perfect barley root shape for varying soil profiles across Australia

UQ's Associate Professor Lee Hickey and InterGrain barley breeder Dr Hannah Robinson

Researchers at the University of Queensland (UQ) have teamed up with barley breeders Intergrain to investigate ways of boosting root systems and improving yield sustainability for Australia’s second most popular grain.

With a total budget of $780,000, the four-year project will use cutting-edge technology to analyse root traits and fast-track barley breeding for diverse production environments across most Australian states.

Co-funded by an Australian Research Council Linkage grant, the project will be conducted in conjunction with Australian National University (ANU), as one of 65 awardees in a $30 million grant round first announced in April.

University of Queensland associate professor Lee Hickey is heading up the project, and says the research will provide the agricultural industry with vital information it wouldn’t have been exposed to before.

"For a century, plant breeders have focused on what happens above the ground in terms of adapting crops to diverse production environments," Hickey says.

"Barley breeders have traditionally focused on breeding for traits that are visible such as plant height and flowering time.

"Over the years, important root traits could have been inadvertently selected, but there may be a lot more we can achieve."

Hickey says a deeper root system will improve access to moisture during dry seasons on farms with deep soils, whereas more vigorous root growth in the upper soil layers could be advantageous for crops grown in shallow soils reliant on rainfall during growing seasons.

Arial view of an InterGrain barley breeding field site

InterGrain barley breeder Dr Hannah Robinson says the research will focus on creating an "optimum root shape" for varying soil profiles across Australia.

This, she says, will help improve water and nutrient extraction – and ultimately yield – in Australia’s variable and changing climates.

"It is about validating what is the best for each unique soil profile and environment, then breeding varieties with optimised root systems adapted to those environments across Australia," she says.

Among the methods researchers will use to better understand the crop is remote sensing technology, including drones fitted with multi-spectral cameras, that will measure traits not visible to the naked eye, including canopy temperature and indications of how much water the crop is using.

Drone data will then be matched with soil coring samples from the field, providing the research team with better understandings of the relationship between canopy traits and root traits.

Researchers will also use the CRISPR genome-editing technology help researchers target the key genes that influence root system development, helping them engineer novel genetic variation.

"If we can successfully harness the new technologies to improve root systems in barley, this approach could also be used in breeding programs for other major cereals such as wheat and oats," Hickey says.

"Understanding the value of different root traits is key."

Barley field trial in Warwick, Queensland

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