Scottish institutes join fight against barley disease

The increasingly global nature of agricultural science was highlighted with the announcement this week that two Scottish establishments are to share in a £1 million research project into a barley disease – funded by the Danish government.

Ramularia attacks the barley crop in late growth stages. Picture: Getty
Ramularia attacks the barley crop in late growth stages. Picture: Getty

The research will focus on identifying why ramularia – a fungus that initially lives in harmony with barley plants – turns into a deadly pathogen, which can attack the crop in the late growth stages, crippling yield.

Scientists from Scotland’s Rural College, the James Hutton Institute and Aarhus University in Denmark will work together to discover how and why the leaf spot disease becomes deadly around the time the barley plant flowers.

Commenting on the funding, SRUC plant pathologist Neil Havis said: “We need to work out which genes are involved in the switch from a harmless fungus to harmful pathogen. This project aims to identify barley varieties that have a higher resistance to ramularia.”

The three-year project has drawn funding from Denmark following a considerable rise in the incidence of ramularia there in recent years. The group will be studying the genetic make-up of current commercial varieties – and also look at older lines that did not show the same degree of susceptibility to see if they offered a route to plant resistance.

Ramularia has only recently been identified as the cause of the disease which, in the UK, mainly affects growers in Scotland and the north of England, although reports of the disease have been spreading in recent years.

The main symptoms are rectangular brown spots, which are surrounded by a lighter yellow halo. Soon after the symptoms appear, the plants can wither and die. About 300,000 hectares of barley is grown in Scotland every year and the researchers estimated the yield losses to be equivalent to losing around 25,000ha in a high disease year.

• Plans have been unveiled for a new £50 million-plus innovation hub at the James Hutton Institute site near Dundee, as part of its ongoing expansion.

Chief executive Professor Iain Gordon said that although the plans were at an early stage, they would help the institute to attract world-class researchers and funding from around the globe.

He said that the institute was in the process of completing a scoping study. This would help rationalise the existing facilities, which consist of 42 buildings.

Commenting on recent media coverage of the development of genetically modified potatoes resistant to blight, he said GM was one of several tools used by the Hutton in its research.

However, he said UK regulations meant there could be no testing locally, even under controlled conditions. “So we have to find commercial partners abroad to carry out trials. Sadly, this means that we risk losing out on any public benefits that might be specific to our own locality.”