Barley genome may be key to brewing better beer

An international team of scientists has published a high resolution draft of the barley genome in the prestigious Nature Journal.

According to Professor Robbie Waugh of Scotland’s James Hutton Institute, the research will help brewers produce new and better barley varieties that are vital for the beer and whisky industries.

“The breakthrough is a critical step towards barley varieties able to cope with the demands of climate change,” explained Waugh.

“It should also help in the fight against cereal crop diseases that cause millions of [dollars] of losses annually.”

Interestingly, the barley genome is almost twice the size of that of humans and determining the sequence of its DNA has presented a major challenge. This is largely because its genome contains a large proportion of closely related sequences that are difficult to piece together into a true linear order.

However, by developing and applying a series of innovative strategies that allowed them to circumvent these difficulties, the researchers managed to construct a high resolution draft DNA sequence assembly that contains the majority of barley genes in linear order.

The above-mentioned publication provides a detailed overview of the functional portions of the barley genome, revealing the order and structure of most of its 32,000 genes and a detailed analysis of where and when genes are switched on in different tissues and at different stages of development.

It also describes the location of dynamic regions of the genome that, for example, contain genes conferring resistance to diseases. This will provide a far better understanding of the crop’s immune system and differences between several different barley cultivars.

“Access to the assembled catalogue of gene sequences will streamline efforts to improve barley production through breeding for varieties better able to withstand pests and disease and deal with adverse environmental conditions such as drought and heat stress.

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