RESEARCHERS from The University of Queensland have discovered that a key gene that controls flowering time in wheat and barley crops also directs the plant's root growth.
Project leader Dr Lee Hickery from the Queensland Alliance for Agriculture and Food Innovation (QAAFI) said the discovery was a major breakthrough in understanding the genetics of root development and could boost food security by allowing researchers to breed crops better adapted to a range of environments.
"Wheat and barley are ancient crops and humans have been growing them for thousands of years,” Dr Hickey said.
"Over the years, farmers and more recently plant breeders, have made significant progress selecting for above-ground traits, yet have largely ignored the 'hidden half' of the plant - its roots. Our discovery that the VRN1 gene, which is known to regulate flowering in wheat and barley crops, also plays a role in the plant's ability to respond to gravity, thereby directing root growth and determining the overall shape of the root system.”
Dr Hickey said this unexpected insight into the underground functions of the VRN1 gene has major implications for optimising cereal crops.
"A particular variant of VRN1 in barley, known as the Morex allele, simultaneously induced early flowering and maintained a steep, cheap and deep root system,” Dr Hickey said.
"This is exciting because flowering time is a key driver for yield and the VRN1 gene appears to offer a dual mechanism that could not only boost crop yield but also improve water and nutrient acquisition.”