Transgenic Barley is Resistant to Water


In collaboration with scientists beer producer SabMilller examined the possibilities of genetic manipulation of barley. Their aim is to develop a crop that thrives in floods. 

Business case

Barley, a key ingredient of beer, is prone to flooding. Because a lot of barley is produced in areas with heavy rainfall, the quality and quantity of beer is increasingly threatened. Thus 50 percent of the average yield may be destroyed due to flooding. Use of plants with increased tolerance to water logging yields could increase significantly via transgenics, at no extra cost. Beer producer SABMiller has invested in the research of the survival behavior of barley during floods . The company has enlisted the services of scientists at the University of Nottingham to make barley more resistant to flooding.

If plants are under water, they react with a certain calm reaction. In addition, the plant switches over to a low-energy mode, in which the growth is suppressed and the fermentation is minimized. With this reaction, similar to people holding their breath, the plant can survive several hours or even days. If the flooding continues, the plant can without much damage resume its growth.

However, research also shows that barley plants in prolonged periods of flood conditions activate a gene that stops the rest reaction. By making use of advanced breeding techniques, researchers managed to develop transgenic barley to alter that gene responsible for that reaction. Consequently, the plant could breath much longer than non-transgenic counterparts. In addition, the plant also appeared to maintain its photosynthesis ability, which means that the plant can resume its growth process after the disappearance of the water without damage.

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Climate change leads to an increase of flooding and floods. It is estimated that about 10 percent of global land area is affected by inadequate soil drainage. For certain regions, such as Eastern Europe, 20 percent of land is affected. To provide adequate revenues to secure different crops, it is important that they find ways to make crops more resistant to flooding. Distribution of crops designed to better natural defense mechanisms has somewhat offered better opportunities of survivability.

For the time being, the scientists ‘only’ managed to unravel the mechanism of flood-evasive responses. The brake for a flood-evasive reaction is in plants which are not tolerant to water-logging constantly active, instead of only when needed. This crop has therefore always a flood-evasive response. This means that further research is needed only to deactivate the brake gene in barley when the crop is flooded.

If successful, the technique can also be used to transform other comparable plants to water-resistant crops. This can produce a stable food supply in the long term. The disadvantage is the social criticism that goes with it. Small farmers and farmers in developing countries can not afford modified seeds as possible when they are patented. That will increase the gap between rich and poor. However, if GM crops are developed by non-profit organizations, such as rice science for a better world (IRRI), then they may easily be available. This can optimize the yields of these farmers, resulting in improved livelihoods.

Environmental benefits

Improving the plant functionality can be interesting because it provides a mechanism that plants take no energy, but does protect plants against flooding. This tackles the problem of the increased number of floods, without the need for expensive land drainage systems are needed.

Additionally, you will lose fewer crops. This not only means a higher yield of a crop, but also more revenue from raw materials and resources used for the cultivation of crops. Therefore less food lost and also keeping the raw materials used for growing crops which they value. The use of improved plant functionality leads to secure a more efficient use of raw materials through higher yields.

As stated previously, however, there is public concern about genetic modification of crops. Not only socially, but also ecologically. Thus, various organizations are afraid that GM food poses risks for food safety, the environment and health.They fear that genetic modification leads to loss of biodiversity, the emergence of “superweeds” and “super-bullying, increasing antibiotic resistance, food allergies and other unintended effects.

Several studies, however, indicate that there are no significant risks can be directly linked to genetically engineered crops. Moreover, various regulatory laws exist to prevent negative effects. That does not mean that its application must be viewed without care. If after careful examination shows that use of a transgenic crop yields no danger, sensible use of the crop should be considered.

Article Credit: Duurzaam