Was barley locally adapted to drought conditions in ancient Nubia?

Lead Research Organisation: University of Warwick
Department Name: Warwick HRI

Abstract

Nubian barley - Summary One of the most serious challenges in the future of agriculture in the face of an increasing global population and climate change is water availability. However, we are not the first to face this problem. Lessons may be learned from past civilizations that grew crops in extreme environments for thousands of years. Evidence suggests that landraces of crops may have been in place for several millennia and likely to be specifically well adapted to their local environment. In effect, such landraces represent the efforts of thousands of years of selective breeding that should be regarded as an irreplaceable genetic resource. Unfortunately, many such landraces have now been lost by replacement with modern varieties. In some instances, we have access to those landraces through archaeobotanical remains. This study focuses on an area of the world associated with ancient Egypt - Nubia. The populations of southern ancient Nubia faced an environment in which water stress was a way of life. Interestingly, archaeobotanical samples of the 'smaller' barley that they grew shows some evidence of being adapted to drought conditions in a way that is not seen in the modern world. Furthermore, it seems that successive cultures from outside the region adopted this barley type, rather than introduce their own superficially higher yielding 'larger' varieties such as was grown in the Western Oases, and further north up the Nile Valley where water was not so scarce. We think this is because the Nubian barley was better suited to the harsh environment of the southern Nile Valley than outside varieties. In this case perhaps small was more beautiful. In this project we intend to examine a large portion of the barley genome (0.5%) most likely to be affected by drought stress in archaeobotanical samples from Nubian sites spanning 3000 years to find out if and how these ancient landraces became better suited to their environment. We will determine whether 'adapted' alleles could be utilized as a genetic resource for future breeding programs. We will also find out whether the landrace was kept 'pure', or whether a type was maintained with an influx of genetic material with new cultures. This study will provide us with important insight into the extent to which crops spread with culture or became locally adapted to the benefit of many cultures, and whether the ancient populations of Nubia solved problems of water shortage genetically in ways that will help us face the future.

Publications

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Allaby R (2015) Using archaeogenomic and computational approaches to unravel the history of local adaptation in crops in Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society B: Biological Sciences

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Palmer SA (2012) The blossoming of plant archaeogenetics. in Annals of anatomy = Anatomischer Anzeiger : official organ of the Anatomische Gesellschaft

 
Description This project retrieved over 240 million reads of DNA using Illumina technology from 60 grains of archaeological barley, including 82,000bp from a single 2,000 year old charred grain of barley. The capture technique employed examined 180 genes of interest, selected because of their association with aspects of drought resistance. Data analysis is still underway. The data will enable us to understand how the barley at the archaeological site under study (Qasr Ibrim) has evolved through time, and how it differs to other barley not under the same water stress conditions. In terms of data analysis, the project has been an immense success. There is little doubt that the analysis of the data will bring fascinating insight.

2017: We spent a couple of years refining new phasing techniques to abstract the data from these samples, which late in 2016 we finally achieved, which will be the subject of a methods publication in 2017. We have discovered how cultures exchanged barley through the ages, although specific details we cannot divulge here for scientific competitiveness reasons. We have entered into a collaboration with the Scottish Crop Research Institute to place the diversity we have found in a global context. We are in a position to start preparing a major publication manuscript now, for submission in 2017.
Exploitation Route There is potential for potential use in breeding and crop improvement. Academic outputs are numerous, but other possible outcomes could be the identification of alleles of genes associated with drought resistance in this population.
Sectors Agriculture, Food and Drink,Environment

 
Description The findings so far have been used in a large Royal Society Meeting celebrating 3 decades of ancient DNA research, in which the project was used to highlight the possibilities of ancient DNA and how it may impact.
First Year Of Impact 2013
Impact Types Cultural

 
Description SCRI collaboration 
Organisation Scottish Crop Research Institute (SCRI)
Country United Kingdom 
Sector Academic/University 
PI Contribution We have shared our archaeologenetic data with SCRI.
Collaborator Contribution SCRI are placing the aracheogenetic data within the context of modern barleys globally.
Impact The analysis provided by SCRI will enable us to raise the profile of the research to a top flight publication.
Start Year 2016
 
Description BANEA (British Association Near Eastern Archaeology), Glasgow, 2017 
Form Of Engagement Activity A talk or presentation
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach International
Primary Audience Professional Practitioners
Results and Impact Talk to archaeologists about how archaeogenomic research can be used to understand archaeological processes. Drew on several grant funded studies.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2017
 
Description Garnett conference, Cambridge, 2016 
Form Of Engagement Activity A talk or presentation
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach International
Primary Audience Professional Practitioners
Results and Impact Presentation at the Garnett plant science conference, theme on natural variation and its utilization. Described how archaeogenomic research can be applied to understand how variation changes over time. Drew on several grant funded studies.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2016
 
Description World Archaeology Conference, Kyoto, Japan 
Form Of Engagement Activity A talk or presentation
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach International
Primary Audience Professional Practitioners
Results and Impact Actually several talks at the WAC conference and an invited seminar at Kobe University, talking about how archaeogenomics helps us understand the evolution of domestication. Drew on several grant funded studies.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2016