Sequencing the entire genome of an organism is no easy feat, but the benefits can be as important as saving species from the brink of extinction, fighting cancer, getting rid of pests – and now, brewing better booze. After a decade of study, an international team of scientists has finally unraveled the genome of barley, an achievement that could not only lead to tastier beer and whiskey, but a better understanding of other staple food crops.
Showing up in your cereal in the morning, your sandwich at lunch, and your beers or single malt Scotch whiskey after work, the humble barley grain is one of the most widely grown and consumed crops on Earth. Its importance stretches back as far as 10,000 years, and improving our understanding of it means we can grow varieties more selectively to help feed (and intoxicate) the growing population.
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While it might look like a pretty simple organism, barley has some 39,000 genes to its name – almost twice as many as there are in the human genome. To make the job even more challenging, 80 percent of the genes are arranged in highly repetitive sequences, which makes pinning down their precise locations in the genome extremely difficult.
As a result, it took 10 years for a team of 77 scientists to piece together the plant's entire sequence. Spearheaded by the International Barley Genome Sequencing Consortium, the project involved researchers from across the globe, including the US, UK, Australia, Germany, China, Czech Republic, Denmark, Finland, Sweden and Switzerland.
Many barley products rely on the grains being malted first, which means they're soaked in water to start the germination process, then interrupted and dried out. The amylase proteins that brings out then convert starch into sugars, which yeast can feed on to ferment the mix into alcohol.
To their surprise, the researchers found that there were far more genes that encoded for amylase than they expected. The completed sequence can also help improve the overall quality of barley crops, by identifying parts of the genome that might be holding breeders back, and showing them which genes they should be selecting for. The study could also prove to be a solid foundation to better understand related crops, like rice and wheat.
"This takes the level of completeness of the barley genome up a huge notch," says Timothy Close, one of the study's many authors. "It makes it much easier for researchers working with barley to be focused on attainable objectives, ranging from new variety development through breeding to mechanistic studies of genes."
The research was published in the journal Nature.