‘Friendly’ fungi can boost barley yield and cut chemicals

Irish scientists have discovered friendly fungi that could help barley growers feed the world without the need for chemicals.

Harvesting barley at Knocklofty, Clonmel, Co Tipperary. TCD scientists say two naturally occurring plantfriendlyfungi can prevent crop-ravishing diseases from spreading. Picture: O'Gorman Photography

The breakthrough discovery by botanists from Trinity College Dublin could also save barley farmers sleepless nights and millions of euro every year.

They found in laboratory tests that two naturally occurring plant-friendly fungi prevent crop-ravishing diseases from spreading and also boosted plant survival in testing environmental conditions.

Around six times as many barley plants inoculated with the natural fungal organism survived heat, drought, nutrient-poor soils, than those who were not so protected.

It is expected that field trials will soon be under way to see whether the results from the laboratory are as successful on the ground.

Crucially, the organisms, fungal endophytes, live harmlessly in the plant roots, greatly reducing the need for farmers to spray chemicals to protect their crops.

Barley is the fourth most important global cereal crop. A hardy plant, it is often grown in relatively poor environmental conditions. For many farmers across the world, it is a vital source of food and income.

Botany researcher and lead author Brian Murphy said Irish farmers spend over €99m annually on chemicals for barley.

Nitrogenous fertilisers accounted for 70% of the overall cost.

“As well as being expensive, these chemicals can cause serious environmental damage and even biodiversity loss.

“Our innovative crop treatment has the potential to significantly reduce these costs and contribute to sustainable and organic agricultural practices,” said Mr Murphy.

The endophytes, such as those found to prevent seed infections, had a ‘symbiotic’ relationship with barley, making the plants housing their fungal friends much tougher.

The endophytes occur naturally in agricultural soils and, in some cases, plants might already be exposed to them by chance.

If the project is successful, the botanists will have made a major contribution to one of the burning questions facing policymakers across the world — how to feed a rapidly growing and hungry world.

Associate professor in botany in Trinity’s School of Natural Science, Dr Tever Hodkinson said a major challenge for agriculture was how to increase crop yields while moving towards more sustainable farming systems.

“We are looking to scale up the research into the field and commercialise the technology,” said Dr Hodkinson.

The discovery has been published in the international peer-reviewed journal BioControl.

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