Biology

With the barley genome sequenced, better beer and whiskey is on the table

With the barley genome sequenc...
After 10 years of study, the barley genome has been fully sequenced, which could lead to better beer and single malt Scotch whiskey
After 10 years of study, the barley genome has been fully sequenced, which could lead to better beer and single malt Scotch whiskey
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After 10 years of study, the barley genome has been fully sequenced, which could lead to better beer and single malt Scotch whiskey
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After 10 years of study, the barley genome has been fully sequenced, which could lead to better beer and single malt Scotch whiskey

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.

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.

Source: University of California, Riverside

3 comments
JamesParenteau
Ever wonder how eating GMO food could be healthy? Of course, man has been cross pollinating and growing different species of food for centuries, but when you do the research, you may find the unorthodox ways of modifying food to not only have a negative effect on health of people, but also the little bugs and creatures. I certainly hope that careful consideration is taken with respect to contaminating our biosphere we call Earth. Once we get a strain which is mixed in genetically with nature, it is almost impossible to stop cross-breeding with healthy strains of plants. Most people do not realize the impact with carelessly playing god with life.
Penguin
This is good news for humanity, barley is an important crop and the potential for improving it or bringing out desirable characteristics is a great thing. It is bad news for the anti-GMO crowd who figure anything modified by man is toxic, and that molecules can be 'programmed' as part of a wider conspiracy by the agra-pharma- cartel to pollute their 'precious bodily fluids' - cue the lunatics!
Aross
I guess I am one of those lunatics who think we are not careful enough with the GMO food. Mother nature took millions of years to come up with things that we can eat without killing ourselves and the human body has adjusted to these over hundreds of thousands of years. I'm not anti GMO as such but have noted that most of these changes are made "to benefit man" but most seem to benefit the agricultural business. To think that we can test and ensure that something is safe in several years or months is stupid and arrogant. If we look at the increased occurrence of cancers, allergies and mental disorders, they can't all be explained by the environment or genetic defects of the human race. After all we are what we eat. It is quite possible that the effects of GMO etc are not on the current generation but on the subsequent generations. Especially considering the astronomical increase in children with health problems associated with adults. There is no proof, that I'm aware of, that GMO is causing this but there is also no proof that it isn't. I for one try, as much as is possible considering the poor state of labeling GMO food to-date, to not consume GMO foods. In addition I grow most of my own food from legacy seeds in my back yard without pesticides and chemical fertilizers. At least I know what I'm eating, Penguin, do you?