Barley is the second most important cereal crop grown in the UK – used as animal fodder, in human foods such as health foods, soups and stews, and also in the drinks production industry. High-quality malting barley underpins beer and whisky production and is worth around £20bn sterling to the UK economy. However, barley is susceptible to a number of diseases, the most important of which is called leaf blotch and is caused by a fungal pathogen. This disease affects the leaves, ears and stems of the barley – decreasing grain quality and reducing crop yields by up to 40 per cent.
Bruce Fitt, professor of plant pathology at the University of Hertfordshire, said: “Crops that appear to be clear of disease can suddenly develop leaf blotch symptoms unexpectedly. The source of the disease is unclear and this has puzzled farmers and researchers alike.
“However, our research shows that the fungal pathogen that causes barley leaf blotch can be found on wild ryegrasses, which are common both as weeds within cereal crop fields and in the surrounding field margins.”
In the study, both DNA and plant testing showed that the leaf blotch pathogen that affects barley can be found on the wild grasses and was virulent on commonly grown varieties of barley.
Professor Fitt continued: “Field margins play an important role in creating areas of habitat to support wildlife and wild plants species. But the increasing demand for agricultural land to provide enough crops to feed and support the growing population is putting pressure on these little pockets of wild nature.
“And if this pathogen species can be spread from wild grasses onto barley crops and back again, further investigation is needed to identify how widespread this species is and also the role that wild grasses play as sources of disease for other crops such as wheat.”
The paper, ‘Evolutionary Relationships Between Rhynchosporium lolii sp. nov. and Other Rhynchosporium Species on Grasses’ is published in here.
Image harvesting winter barley/O’Gorman Photography