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Researchers have discovered varieties of barley with a surprisingly high level of genetic diversity in Eritrea, which could be useful for researchers trying to breed drought and disease resistant barley.

But the scientists warn that the resource could be lost if seed conservation measures are not improved.

The barley, found in farmer's fields surrounding the capital city Asmara in Eritrea, has the highest level of genetic diversity ever discovered.  

Lead researcher Ahmed Jahoor, of the University of Copenhagen, Denmark, says he observed that the barley grows under diverse levels of drought severity, which could be useful to plant breeders wishing to select the level of drought tolerance needed. He expects to find genetic variability for disease resistance as well.

Jahoor says the seeds will be invaluable for improving barley "not only in Eritrea but elsewhere in tropical highland where barley is grown".

They could be used as a new source of useful genes that have not previously been used in barley breeding programmes, and will be available for research purposes through common material transfer agreement procedures.

However, Jahoor told SciDev.Net that the new gene pool is under threat due to poor seed conservation facilities in Eritrea. He urged the scientific community to establish a seed bank to conserve the genetic resource before it is lost forever.

Jahoor says he has had difficulties obtaining funding for a seed bank because the Danish government has stopped supporting Eritrea for political reasons, and other funding agencies have not committed any funds.

Mike Gale, emeritus research fellow at the UK-based John Innes Centre, says the levels of genetic diversity that the researchers found clearly demonstrates the value of international genebanks.

The research was part of the Integrated Cereal Disease Management programme that aims to enhance research collaboration between Danish research institutes, National Agricultural Research Institutes in developing countries and centres of the Consultative Group on International Agricultural Research.

It was published online in Theoretical & Applied Genetics last week (6 February).

Link to abstract in Theoretical and Applied Genetics

Reference: Theoretical and Applied Genetics doi: 10.1007/s00122-007-0505-5 (2007)