Digging into heritage for more resilient barley

Research Lives: Dr Sónia Negrão, assistant professor in plant sciences at UCD

You want to reduce the stress on barley – how does barley get stressed?

Plants experience different kinds of stress, including having too much rainfall and water around their roots. If you or I get caught in the rain, we can go indoors or get an umbrella, but plants can’t move; they have to respond to stress in other ways to keep healthy and keep growing.

We are working on two-row spring barley, which is particularly important economically for the whiskey and beer industries. The problem is that with climate change rainfall is becoming more concentrated, but also unpredictable, and heavy rains can lead to waterlogging, which affects the growth and yield of the barley.

What is your project doing?


We are looking at heirloom or heritage lines of barley that are no longer cultivated. We are planting them in fields at UCD Lyons Farm, and working with colleagues in computer science to capture and analyse drone images as the plants grow.

We are also growing some of these lines indoors under tightly controlled conditions, and we just got an amazing hyperspectral imager so we can scan them as they grow. Then we are looking at the genetics and yields and protein content, to see which lines may be more resilient to the kinds of challenges that climate change is bringing.

If these old barleys are no longer grown, are they hard to find?

We have great collaborators helping us on this project. We have sourced barley seeds from seed banks in Norway, held by our partners in Scotland, we have Irish barleys from the Department of Agriculture Food and the Marine and we are even working with the National Botanic Gardens to look at museum specimens.

How has Covid-19 affected the research?

It has been a challenge, but my wonderful team has kept working even in these strange circumstances. For example, one PhD student, Patrick Langan, prepared the barley seeds at home. Then he would drive them over to one of the post-doctoral researchers, Dr Nadia Al-Tamimi, so she could get to work on them.

Luckily we got clearance letters to go to the field to sow the seeds, so we would not lose a year of the project. We also managed to get authorisations to bring the hyperspectral imaging equipment to UCD, so we can scan the plants. And I got to meet President Higgins just before lockdown too, which was extremely exciting.

Why did you meet him?

I received a Science Foundation Ireland President of Ireland Future Research Leaders Award, and the award ceremony was in early March. The President and his staff were super nice, and the ceremony was amazing. We work hard in science, and this kind of recognition really makes our day.

Was plant science always on your radar?

Not at all! I grew up in Portugal and I spent my childhood summers on the beach, I had zero interest in plants. Then in school when I was about 15, I learned about genetics and I fell in love with it. It was like a lightbulb switching on. I studied agronomy at university, and when I learned about using genetics in crop breeding I was hooked, that was it.

And how do you spend time outside work?

Probably the usual things, I spend time with family. My husband and I like to go on hikes with the kids, and I like to cook as well. I have always had pets in my life and now we have two cats – a black one called Spartacus, and a white one called Keanu, after Keanu Reeves.

Claire O'Connell

Claire O'Connell

Claire O'Connell is a contributor to The Irish Times who writes about health, science and innovation