Genetic discovery sheds light on sodium tolerance in barley crops

Friday, 22 May 2020

Scientists have identified a natural variation in a gene that influences sodium content in barley crops, a finding which may help advance the development of barley varieties with improved yield and resilience.

Plant scientists from the University of Nottingham have collaborated with international Barley Hub scientists at the James Hutton Institute and colleagues in Australia on this new research, published in Communications Biology.

Sodium in soil is transported from the root to the shoot of barley plants, and while an excessive level is toxic to most plants, non-toxic concentrations have been shown to improve yields under certain conditions, such as when soil potassium is low.

Professor David Salt, Director of the University of Nottingham’s Future Food Beacon explains: “We have identified a natural genetic variant that allows barley to accumulate more salt (sodium) in its grain. Excessive salt is generally associated with poor plant growth and reduced production of grain. Surprisingly then, low levels of salt have been shown to stimulate plant growth. The natural genetic variant we have identified is generally rare among non-cultivated wild barley, but is common among those kinds of barley grown by farmers. This suggests that over time the genetic variant we have discovered has been unwittingly selected by farmers because it enhanced barley production by stimulating the accumulation of salt from their fields, which are usually low in salt.”


The research team examined how a specific version of the HKT1;5 gene allows barley plants to accumulate high concentrations of sodium without any adverse impacts on plant growth, even suggesting enhanced yield potential in non-saline environments.

Hutton barley geneticist and lead author of the study, Dr Kelly Houston, said: “This particular version of HKT1;5 is present in 35 percent of contemporary barley genetic material, compared to being almost absent in the wild barley and landraces screened, which means there is potentially an advantage to having it in future varieties.

“This paper represents five years’ work. We are delighted that our discovery can provide real benefits in terms of understanding this important trait.”

Professor Colin Campbell, Chief Executive of the James Hutton Institute, added: “Barley is one of the UK’s most valuable crops and so this discovery is important and likely to have significant economic impact. The International Barley Hub is showing again that research in this area can yield great returns on investing in basic understanding of barley.”

Finding sustainable ways to feed a growing population in a changing climate is one of the key issues the Future Food Beacon is trying to tackle and this research is a significant step in understanding how to improve barley crop yields, potentially securing the future of an important global food source and UK crop.
Professor David Salt, Director of the Future Food Beacon

The research was an international collaboration between barley scientists at the James Hutton Institute and colleagues at the University of Nottingham, University of Adelaide, Australian National University and Huaiyin Normal University in China.

Story credits

More information is available from Professor David Salt on or Jane Icke, Media Relations Manager for the Faculty of Science at the University of Nottingham, on +44 (0)115 951 5751 or

Jane Icke - Media Relations Manager Science
Phone: 0115 7486462

Notes to editors:

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