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Rare native barley to be preserved

Rare varieties of native Scottish barley grown in only a few remaining pockets of the Hebrides could be protected thanks to important genetic fingerprinting work carried out by SCRI.

Photograph of bere barley growing on MachairBere barley is a Scottish landrace form of barley; a spring 6 row barley that is quite unusual in a UK context and is not grown much nowadays.

Now the work at SCRI has paved the way for the preservation of these bere barley varieties that are an important part of Scotland’s historical biodiversity.

“The preservation of these rare native barleys would make a significant contribution to maintaining Scotland’s natural biodiversity and we are keen to ensure they will not disappear altogether,” said Dr Joanne Russell, who leads biodiversity work in the Genetics programme. “This would be a positive step during International Year of Biodiversity 2010.”

SCRI worked with SASA PhD student Cathy Southworth to collect as many bere barley samples as possible from sites across the Scottish islands, including Orkney, Shetland and the Hebrides, as well as the mainland.

These samples were genetically fingerprinted at SCRI and the team identified 1500 genetic markers that show which genes are there, which can now be used in future work.

"The preservation of these rare native barleys would make a significant contribution to maintaining Scotland’s natural biodiversity" - Dr Joanne Russell, SCRI

“We have genetically characterised them and compared them to what we now grow to see how different they are, whether they’re different and whether there’s any useful genes that we can use,” explained Dr Luke Ramsay, who led the project.

“Bere barley is traditionally grown on poor soil, for example the Machair of the Hebrides, and has been grown on this type of land since before the start of the use of interventions, like adding lime to the soil. This means it may have traits that would be useful in nutrient use efficiency in breeding new varieties.

“However in the Hebrides there are only some very small areas of bere barley left. In some instances it literally is a patch growing in the garden and we need to preserve more of these varieties if we are going to be able to use them in breeding programmes.

“We need the people who are growing these varieties to keep on growing them as an important resource for the future,” he added.

As well as identifying important useful traits in bere barley the research has also found important differences and links between varieties found in Scotland, Scandinavia and the Faroe Islands which can help indicate the possible movement of early settlers.

"We need the people who are growing these varieties to keep on growing them as an important resource for the future" - Dr Luke Ramsay, SCRI

The varieties in each of the three islands groups; Orkney, Shetland and the Hebrides; are distinct from each other and are also different from Scandinavian varieties indicating Viking settlers did not bring the barley with them to Scotland.

There were similarities however between the Shetland and Faroes varieties indicating that early settlers may have taken the barley with them from one place to another as they moved further afield.

Preservation of bere barley could also prove useful in health terms as barley is one of the few foodstuffs that have officially recognised health-giving properties due to its beta-glucan content.

It was one of the staple crops before the introduction of oats; and in Orkney you can still find bere bannocks produced today; so there could also be health benefits from its wider use.

Notes to editors

2010 is International Year of Biodiversity. To find out more see www.biodiversityislife.net

More information from:

Phil Taylor, Head of Communications, SCRI, Invergowrie, Dundee, DD2 5DA. Tel: 01382 560044 (direct line), Mobile: 07810 860 701 or

Lorraine Wakefield, Information and Online Service Officer, SCRI, Invergowrie, Dundee, DD2 5DA. Tel: 01382 560047 (direct line) or 562731 (switchboard).

Comments

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It's unfortunate how everyone today is going after genetically modified crops. Natural is always better and we indeed have to preserve the natural crop varieties as much as possible. Nice article btw.