Barley genome breakthrough may lead to better beer

Labatt Breweries of Canada President Bary Benun (centre), hands over Labatt’s collection of archives – dating back to 1847 – to The University of Western Ontario President and Vice-Chancellor Dr. Amit Chakma (right) and Museum London Executive Director and Chief Curator Brian Meehan (left) (CNW Group/Labatt Breweries of Canada)

An international consortium of scientists has published a high-resolution draft of the barley genome in a move that could not only improve yields and disease resistance but may also hold the key to better beer.

“This research will streamline efforts to improve barley production through breeding for improved varieties,” said Robbie Waugh, of Scotland’s James Hutton Institute, who led the research.

“This could be varieties better able to withstand pests and disease, deal with adverse environmental conditions, or even provide grain better suited for beer and brewing.”

Barley which has been malted is a key ingredient in brewing beer along with hops and yeast.

The research, published in the journal Nature, could also be a boon for the whisky industry while barley is also a major component of animal feed for meat and dairy industries.

Barley is the world’s fourth most important cereal crop, trailing only maize, rice and wheat, and its genome is almost twice the size of that of humans.

“It will accelerate research in barley, and its close relative, wheat,” Waugh said.

“Armed with this information breeders and scientists will be much better placed to deal with the challenge of effectively addressing the food security agenda under the constraints of a rapidly changing environment.”

“As a diploid, inbreeding, temperate crop, barley has traditionally been considered a model for plant genetic research,” the researchers wrote in their Nature article.

Given its “large collections of germplasm containing geographically diverse elite varieties, landraces and wild accessions,” barley variations could well “ameliorate the effect of climate change and further enhance dietary fibre in the grain.”

Barley also offers researchers well-maintained and “extensive characterized mutant collections containing all of the morphological and developmental variation observed in the species.”

However, the scientists wrote, the “major impediment to the exploitation of these resources in fundamental and breeding science has been the absence of a reference genome sequence, or an appropriate enabling alternative.”

— Reporting for Reuters by Nigel Hunt in London. Includes files from Network staff.

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