Researchers at Heriot-Watt University in Edinburgh have found a gene that helps barley cope with climate change. They said it enabled barley to resist drought and thereby “future proof” the whisky industry – and could be extended to other crops. Global heating is hitting barley crops, with 2018’s hot summer having a catastrophic effect on yields across Europe, especially in the UK. “There was a loss of around 8%,” says Dr Ross Alexander, a lecturer in the Institute of Life and Earth Sciences at Heriot-Watt. Which maybe doesn’t sound like a lot but when you go from 7.9 billion tonnes down to 6.6 billion tonnes that’s a huge deficit. The research to unlock the secret of the barley genome has taken five years. A barley plant has almost 40,000 genes – that’s almost double the number each of us has. The researchers found the key gene was: HvMYB1 – Mib for short. HvMYB1 acts as a master switch, turning on other genes which protect the plant against heat stress and allowing it to continue growing even when water is scarce. The gene already exists in barley plants but at Heriot-Watt they have bred plants in which the genetic switch is always in the “on” position. Dr Alexander says that increases the amount of “protectants” in the plant – sugars and amino acids which help it rise above drought
It involved breeding generations of barley plants to carry the switched-on gene. They – and unmodified control plants – were then subjected to heat stresses in the laboratory. Funding for the research has come from the Scotch Whisky Association and the food and drink arm of Scottish government’s knowledge exchange programme Interface. The results have been published in the Journal of Plant Physiology and Biochemistry, and Dr Morris says it holds out the prospect of future-proofing Scottish barley.
I asked a good friend of mine to comment on this … “This is very interesting work and if it has the potential to increase the tonnage of malting barley available for use in the future it is to be welcomed. It is of course similar to the work carried out in the recent past to identity the genetic marker for GN production, leading to the development of the non-GN barleys that we are now using, thus removing another risk factor from the supply chain”. Vic Cameron, ex Diageo, is currently Lecturer of Whisky at the UHI, committee member of the Spirit of Speyside Whisky School, Technical Manager for the UK NIR Grain Network and founder of Discerning Spirits. Finishing his Diageo career as Laboratory Services and Cereals Manager, I think he knows a thing or two and his comments are very welcome. Paul McLean, Perth.