The chance discovery of a genetic mutation in wild barley in the Judean Desert has led Haifa University scientists to discover a new gene that played a role in allowing aquatic plants to grow on land and may allow wheat and barley to grow in arid areas.
The new gene sheds light on the process that led to life on land as we know it today.
The discovery of the Judean Desert barley mutation was made by a Chinese student, Guoxiong, during his doctoral study at the University of Haifa and has led to an international study published in the prestigious scientific journal PNAS.
The research was conducted under supervision of university Professor Eviatar (Eibi) Nevo, for whom the Chinese student named the gene “Eibi 1.”
"Life on Earth began in the water, and in order for plants to rise above water to live on land, they had to develop a cuticle membrane that would protect them from uncontrolled evaporation and dehydration,” explains Prof. Nevo.
“In our study, we discovered a completely new gene that along with other genes contributes to the formation of this cuticle.”
Chen found that the mutation of the Judean Desert barley wild barley was significantly smaller than regular wild barley. It was found that this mutation causes an abnormal increase in water loss because of a disruption in the production of the plant's material (cutin) that is a component in the plant's cuticle that reduces water loss and prevents the plant's dehydration.
Chen continued his research after returning to China, where he now is a professor, and enrolled a team of researchers from Israel, Switzerland, China and Japan. They discovered the gene that produces cutin, which is found in all land plants but is either nonexistent or present in tiny amounts in aquatic plants.
"This is one of the genes that contributed to the actual eventuality of life on land as we know it today,” according to Prof. Nevo. “ It is a key element in the adaptation process that aquatic plants underwent in order to live on land” and also is of value in the future enhancement of cereals.
He said that understanding the mechanism behind the production of cutin will allow the formation of wheat and barley species that are more resistant to water loss and more durable in the dryer conditions on land.
"Genetic enhancement of cultivated plants to make them durable in dry and saline conditions can increase food production around the world," the researcher concluded.