Making whisky future-proof: Scientists identify drought resistant gene in barley

By Rachel Arthur contact

- Last updated on GMT

Scotch whisky is made from barley, water and yeast. Pic:getty/marciukk
Scotch whisky is made from barley, water and yeast. Pic:getty/marciukk

Related tags: Scotch whisky, Sustainability, Barley

Scientists in Scotland have identified the gene in barley which is responsible for drought resistance, which could help the Scotch whisky and wider cereals industry respond to climate change.

Barley is one of the three key ingredients used in the production of Scotch whisky, as well as being a major cereal grain for the wider food industry.  

This research can now be used by plant breeders as a market for drought resistance, and allow them to focus attention on barley varieties where the gene is naturally expressed the most prominently.

Barley and its 39,000 genes

Publishing the results of nearly five years of work, the scientists from Heriot-Watt University have demonstrated that the gene HvMYB1 controls stress tolerance in cereals such as barley. This is the first time HvMYB1 has been associated with drought resistance.

Barley has more than 39,000 genes – almost double the number in humans – so characterising the gene was a particular challenge.

Dr Peter Morris, who led the research, said: “Drought is already impacting yields with the European cereals harvest hit particularly hard in 2018. A prolonged, dry and hot summer significantly impacted yields and quality.

“As climate change gathers pace and we experience more extreme seasons, it is essential we can maintain continuity of supply.

“Genetic variation is essential in plant breeding for resilience so we expect this research will now be used by plant breeders as a marker for drought resistance. It will help focus attention on different barley varieties in which this gene is naturally expressed more prominently. This may lead to greater variation in the gene pool of crop plants and more drought resistant crops in future years.”

Sustainable supply for Scotch

Scotch whisky is one of the UK’s leading export goods. Barley is one of the three ingredients used in its production, with around 90% of barley used sourced from Scotland.

The Heriot-Watt University research was funded by the Scotch Whisky Association, which promotes the spirit both at home and abroad.

Dagmar Droogsma, Director of Industry at the Scotch Whisky Association, said: “The Scotch Whisky industry relies on a sustainable and secure supply of good quality raw materials, now and in the future.

“The SWA works closely with specialists at Heriot-Watt university, and others in the sector, to ensure that the industry is equipped to adapt to any changes that may arise from a changing climate. We therefore welcome this research which helps to provide resilience against the effects of climate change and to sustain the diversity of barley varieties used for Scotch Whisky.”

The research, published in the Journal of Plant Physiology and Biochemistry, also has important implications for the wider cereals industry including wheat, maize and rice.

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