British scientists have used 'reverse genetics' to breed a wheat specifically designed to improve whisky production and reduce processing problems.
The novel wheat, created by Rothemsted Research, has been developed to have grain with low levels of soluble dietary fibre.
Currently, using wheat grain is a problem for distilleries because it causes sticky residues that mean the whole distillery must be shut down for cleaning.
According to Dr Rowan Mitchell, the new wheat should decrease these issues: "Great for making whisky, but the opposite to what’s required by bakers."
He added that the development would also make UK grown wheat more desirable for use in whisky compared to imported maize, which is currently easier to process.
This new wheat line is one of the first varieties in the world developed using ‘reverse genetics’ - where scientists start with knowledge of what a gene does, rather than screening for the trait in a plant first and then looking for which of its genes are responsible.
Their non-GM approach, called TILLING, allowed them to rapidly breed their gene of choice into an existing wheat variety.
The researchers said, however, that this is no easy task as wheat has six copies of each of its genes compared to only two copies of each in humans.
The group focused in on genes they discovered that controlled the amount of a chemical found in plant cell walls called arabinoxylan, responsible for soluble fibre levels and what determines its viscosity - whether the liquid extract is ‘thin’ like water, or ‘thick’ like honey.
By using traditional plant breeding methods, they created wheat lines where these genes had stopped working, referred to as ‘knock out’ or loss of function lines.
In these lines, the arabinoxylan molecules where both shorter and fewer in number, leading to a whisky-friendly wheat that produces a liquid extract between 50 and 80% less ‘gloopy’ compared to wheat without the knock-out genes.
Interestingly, the team saw that the plant responded to this change by increasing the bonds between the remaining arabinoxylan molecules, which helped it maintain the size and shape of its cells.
The group have a patent on the use of the gene for this application and are now working with plant breeding company Limagrain to develop a new commercial variety.
Co-author Dr Simon Berry, marker specialist at Limagrain, said: “There is going to be a pilot scale test on about a quarter of a tonne of grain at a distillery this year and we are aiming for an official trials entry within the next 5 years.
“Low viscosity wheat would strengthen the continued use of UK wheat in distilling and offer a solution to those distillers still using maize.”
Scotch production is an extremely important industry to the United Kingdom, worth about £5 billion per year.