UK-based scientists plan to identify the most economically important genes in barley, such as those affecting yield, disease, pest resistance and how much alcohol can be extracted.
"We expect to be able to identify the genes that could lead to improvements in the quality of barley that will be of interest to growers, producers and drinkers," said project leader Dr. Robbie Waugh, of the Scottish Crop Research Institute.
UK whiskey has export sales of £2-3bn (€2.9-4.3bn) and that alone is estimated to make up around a quarter of the UK's food and drink export revenue. About half of Scottish agricultural land contains barley and most of this is used as a vital raw material for whiskey and beer producers.
Waugh told www.BeverageDaily.com the research was to help growers and producers make more informed decisions in crop selection and breeding.
"Plant breeders have been phenomenally successful at continually delivering an increase in yield over the last 15 years. We want to use genetics to find out what they've been doing."
Waugh said current barley breeding, although so far very successful, largely relied on experience, hunches, limited tests and a national listing system, which could be used to make "informed guesses".
The team wants to examine what genetic selections growers have unknowingly made and, after this, look at what genetic combinations could produce the best crops.
"If we can work out which genes have been selected we can also go back into other plant material to see whether or not there are other natural variants that are not in the barley gene pool," said Waugh.
A variety of food and drink industry associations and agricultural firms and groups will pay for half of the £1.8m project.
Coors Brewers UK, subsidiary of US brewer Molson Coors, is one of those contributing. "Barley is our main raw material so we see this project as very important for the future of brewing," said John MacDonald, general manager of Coors malting division.
He said the firm had agreed to carry out tests to help discover which genetic combinations performed best and why.
Waugh said industry partners would also help supply data so that researchers could look at how genes had been shuffled and re-arranged, though he cautioned that research may be on-going for up to four years.
Coor's said it hoped that the first, usable results could be attained in about 18 months.
The research is being carried out at the Scottish Crop Research Institute, Birmingham University and NIAB. It involves almost all barley breeders in the UK and associated end user groups.
The project, named 'Association Genetics of UK elite Barley', will be sponsored by the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council, the Scottish Executive's Environment and Rural Affairs Department and the UK Department for the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs through the Sustainable Arable LINK Programme.
The list of industry partners includes: Advanta Seeds, Coors Brewers UK, CPB Twyford, Syngenta Seeds, Nickerson (UK), RAGT Seeds, Secobra UK, Svalolf Weibull AB, The Maltsters Association of Great Britain, Scotch Whisky Research Institute and Home Grown Cereals Authority.