From tipple to tipping points: A plant geneticist on climate-resilient barley

1 Aug 2023

Image: Dr Sónia Negrão

Dr Sónia Negrão’s research into plant genetics looks at ways to make crops more resilient to the climate crisis.

When discussing her work with a general audience, plant scientist Dr Sónia Negrão always starts with barley.

“I work with barley, a key ingredient for the beer and whiskey industries, and I study how we can make barley more resilient to climate change,” she will begin. “This usually raises interest and questions,” she says.

Negrão leads the Crop Stress Interaction lab (CSI-Dublin) in the School of Biology and Environmental Science at University College Dublin. She thinks it’s important to engage the public in her research and highlight the work being done in universities. She is part of the Soapbox Science Dublin organising committee and describes herself as “very passionate about raising the awareness and importance of women in STEM”.

As well as disseminating research to diverse audiences, Negrão advocates for diverse collaborations among academics. Her advice to newer researchers is “to network, go to events, talk to others; opportunities are always present, you just need to expose yourself and come out of your comfort zone”.

“The best research is that which makes you have fun and makes you think outside the box.”

Tell us about your current research.

My research aims to understand how plants can adapt to environmental stresses by focusing on genetic diversity and heritage crops.

I work with natural diversity – the different forms of a gene (called alleles) that are responsible for changes in the plant’s characteristics (for example, allele A makes a plant with larger grains and allele B with smaller grains). To search for this natural diversity, I work with underrepresented germplasm, such as heritage or heirloom barley.

I have a project funded by Science Foundation Ireland where I’m examining old barley cultivars (plant varieties produced by selective breeding) from the 19th and early-20th century that are not used in our farmers’ fields nowadays but can have resilience characteristics that enable them to cope with climate change.

Part of my research is the study of waterlogging. Because of climate change, we have more and more extreme weather events with higher rainfalls. I try to understand which genes are responsible for those barley plants that are better able to cope with waterlogging and maintain their yield and grain quality for the drinks industry. Once we know those genes, we can then cross the plants and breed plants more resilient to higher rainfall events.

‘In focusing on plants’ adaptation to climate change, my goal is to secure food production and sustainability’

I also focus on plant phenotyping where we use sophisticated imaging equipment (eg drones) to examine plants’ responses to environmental stresses. This research falls under the category of ‘omics’ research. ‘Omics’ is a term describing a field of study that focuses on large-scale data/information to understand a component of an organic process.

There has been a revolution in omics in recent years. Nowadays, we have the capacity to sequence thousands of genomes at a very fine scale and also to characterise their growth (phenotype). This has really empowered plant breeding and plant research.

In your opinion, why is your research important?

All research is important and instrumental to the advancement of humankind. In focusing on plants’ adaptation to climate change, my goal is to understand what makes a particular plant more tolerant than others to secure food production and sustainability.

What inspired you to become a researcher?

When I was in secondary school I started learning about Mendelian genetics. I got hooked immediately on genetics. I wanted to learn all about it.

I went on to study agronomy. On my induction day, I got my syllabus and opened it (back then it was all in paper) and saw a major on plant breeding – it was all about very applied genetics to solve the problem of food security – and my decision was made on that day to pursue plant breeding. All the other events since – getting my PhD, studying abroad, etc, were all fortunate events.

What are some of the biggest challenges or misconceptions you face as a researcher in your field?

Genetic modified organisms (GMOs) are very controversial. I work with natural diversity of crop species. However, I’m a very strong advocate for the importance of using all technologies available to cope with the challenges of feeding 10bn people by 2050, including genetic modification!

I believe that we need to have all hands on deck to study and breed plants to ensure a sustainable production of crops for the future. GMOs and their controversy are a whole topic full of opinions and passions, but they need to be seen under a more positive view, with facts, education and information being key to a change in public perception.

A major challenge in my research is that with new technologies, such as the ones that I’m using with very sophisticated cameras to image plants and study their physiology, I am facing a tsunami of data. To understand what the data is telling us (biologically speaking), we have a long road ahead with data modelling and the use of information architecture.

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