Barley yield formation under abiotic stress depends on the interplay between flowering time genes and environmental cues
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Since the dawn of agriculture, crop yield has always been impaired through abiotic stresses. In a field trial across five locations worldwide, we tested three abiotic stresses, nitrogen deficiency, drought and salinity, using HEB-YIELD, a selected subset of the wild barley nested association mapping population HEB-25. We show that barley flowering time genes Ppd-H1, Sdw1, Vrn-H1 and Vrn-H3 exert pleiotropic effects on plant development and grain yield. Under field conditions, these effects are strongly influenced by environmental cues like day length and temperature. For example, in Al-Karak, Jordan, the day length-sensitive wild barley allele of Ppd-H1 was associated with an increase of grain yield by up to 30% compared to the insensitive elite barley allele. The observed yield increase is accompanied by pleiotropic effects of Ppd-H1 resulting in shorter life cycle, extended grain filling period and increased grain size. Our study indicates that the adequate timing of plant development is crucial to maximize yield formation under harsh environmental conditions. We provide evidence that wild barley germplasm, introgressed into elite barley cultivars, can be utilized to improve grain yield. The presented knowledge may be transferred to related crop species like wheat and rice securing the rising global food demand for cereals.