New research highlights impact of climate on biodiversity

Published 13 February 2007

New research by the Grain Foods Co-operative Research Centre (CRC) showing a direct link between climate and genetic diversity in wild barley provides new evidence of the risks associated with climate change and water availability.

Grain Foods CRC researchers at the Centre for Plant Conservation Genetics at Southern Cross University and at the Institute of Evolution in Israel have identified associations between genetic diversity and climate in wild populations of barley – the first plant domesticated by humans.

The results of the research are reported this week in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Science of the United States of America, one of the world’s leading science journals.

“This research is timely in that it gives us insights into ways in which biodiversity might be influenced by climate change,” said Professor Robert Henry, director of the Centre for Plant Conservation Genetics.

“The diversity and distribution of plant populations is likely to be altered dramatically by changes in temperature or the availability of water in the environment.”

Professor Henry said the research found, unexpectedly, that diversity of a defence gene in the wild barley was greater in drier environments.

“Populations from wetter environments displayed less diversity. This may be due to the influence of the climate on the diversity of pathogenic micro-organisms in the soil,” he said.

“The populations in wetter environments face strong but uniform pest pressures while in the drier sites in the desert the pathogens are not as abundant but are more diverse.

“This finding illustrates the risks of loss or extinction of populations from more favourable environments if rapid climate change results in their exposure to more stressful environments for which they are not adapted.

“The impact of climate change is not as simple as we thought.”

Professor Henry said wild relatives of domesticated plants, especially major crops, were key resources ensuring global food security.

“These wild plant populations may be essential to developing strains of our food crops that can be produced in a changing environment,” he said.

The researchers involved in the project were Honours student James Cronin, Dr Peter Bundock, from the Grain Foods CRC, and Professor Eviatar Nevo, from the Institute of Evolution in Israel.

The work was supported by the Grain Foods CRC because of the potential influence of the genes on the nutritional and functional value of grain in human diets.

The next phase of the research will look at genetic diversity in wild rices in northern Australia.

Media contact: Brigid Veale Southern Cross University communications manager, 02 66593006 or 0439 680 748