Global warming is causing genetic changes in wild cereal grains in Israel that could endanger food production, a recent study by University of Haifa scientists reveals.
Wild cereal progenitors provide the genetic basis for improving cultivated varieties of wheat and barley.
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The study, which will be published this week in the U.S. journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, examined changes to 10 wild emmer wheat populations and 10 wild barley populations from different climates and habitats across Israel, from the Negev in the south to Mount Hermon in the north. They were sampled in 1980, in 2008 and in 2009.
The team, headed by Prof. Eviatar Nevo from the university’s Institute of Evolution, grew samples it collected in an experimental greenhouse.
Reduction in genetic diversity
One finding was that the flowering time for all 20 populations was significantly reduced between 1980 and 2008, by an average of about 10 days.
Nevo believes the earlier flowering is an environmental adaptation in response to increasingly earlier and warmer springs.
While earlier flowering may be a positive and useful adaption to global warming, other findings were less encouraging: The study found a significant reduction in genetic diversity of the plants in 2008, compared to 1980, which points to an erosion in the samples’ ability to respond to changes in the environment, including climate change.
The changes in the emmer wheat were found to be much greater than changes in the barley, which is more drought-resistant than wheat.
On the positive side, the researchers say that in some of the plants – those in areas with relatively plentiful rainfall – they also found genetic changes that attest to an ability to adjust to climate changes.
Wheat and barley in Israel’s northern areas are known to have genetic traits that help make them resistant to drought and disease.