Barley & The James Hutton Institute

Following on from the publishing of a high resolution draft of the barley genome in the journal Nature the James Hutton Institute is hoping to establish a £23m international centre for the study of barley, with the hopes of creating hardier, more resistant strains for use the production of biofuel, beer and of course whisky. Barley is already the second most important crop in UK agriculture, grown across almost 50% of Scotland’s arable land and underpinning the Scotch whisky industry £5 billion per year contribution to the UK economy, so this development is likely to receive considerable support.

A Big Year For Barley

Work at the James Hutton institute is bringing hope for completely Rhynchosporium resistant strains, the infection is estimated to account for some 10% of yield losses at a cost of around £7.2m per annum even when fungicide are being used. PhD student Louise Gamble is hoping that by studying the rhynchosporium genes activated at the early stages of barley infection in varying strains it will be possible to “find novel sources of resistance to recognise proteins in the pathogen that are at low risk of being modified” if successful this would greatly reduce dependencies on fungicide.

Barley as a Biofuel

The significance of barley to the UK or even European economy may also be about to receive a boost in the form of a new biofuel proof of concept. Scottish start up Celtic Renewables has produced its first drops of biofuel using draff (sugar-rich barley kernals, and pot ale both waste by-products of the whisky industry into biobutanol. Company founder and Edinburgh Napier University Professor Martin Tangney explains that ABE (Acetone-Butanol-Ethanol)  “is produced from a fermentation process using bacteria and starchy feedstocks in an anaerobic (or oxygen-free) environment”. The process being something akin to beer making is already used in the America’s turning corn and sugarcane into biofuel, however Celtic Renewables are aiming to take utilise some of the 2.8 million tonnes of waste produced annually by whisky and beer production and create Acetone, Butanol and Ethanol from the liquid, the remaining solid waste would then be treated and turned into valuable animal feed.

Whisky: The Juice of the Barley

Although the introduction of new strains of barley are unlikely to be universally and instantly accepted by whisky enthusiasts improved yields are certain to be adopted by suppliers, and will with a lower price point make their way into the production process in due course. While there may well be groaning its worth remembering that Golden Promise barley was only developed in 1965 and current strains such as Concerto are incredibly recent, the general consensus is that the grain varietals make little to no impact on the final flavour.

A Bright Future For Barley

Now the James Hutton with a new centre on the horizon complete with its own micro-breweries and micro-distilleries even more robust, higher yield strains of barley may well be on their way. Professor Robbie Waugh of the Hutton institute points out that the domestication of barley some 10,000 years ago likely “left behind lots of good versions of genes that weren’t in the domesticated gene pool, and these are some of the genes that we might need to grow barley in the environments that we’re going to face in the future”. By most accounts Barley yields have increased at a rate of about 1% every year for the last 25 years, if current developments continue, Rhynchosporium commune resistant strains can be developed and Celtic Renewables can achieve their aims barley looks to have a very bright future in Scotland.