UK scientists breed new wheat for better whisky production

The new breed reduces processing problems and increases quality

23w ago

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Various grains are used for different varieties of whisky. Malt whisky uses only malt, but other whiskies use barley, corn, rye, and wheat. 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 every so often, but scientists have developed a new breed of wheat that eliminates this issue meaning more efficient production and a higher quality product.

The novel wheat, created by Rothemsted Research, has been developed to have grain with low levels of soluble dietary fibre. According to Dr Rowan Mitchell, the new wheat should decrease these issues. It is "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.

Interestingly, this new wheat line is one of the first varieties in the world developed using ‘reverse genetics’. This means that the 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.

Despite the scientific wizardry involved, this is still a non-GM approach. Instead, they've used a process called TILLING, which allows them to rapidly breed their gene of choice into an existing wheat variety.

As you might expect, this is no easy task: wheat has six copies of each of its genes compared to only two copies of each in humans. I'm no scientist, but it seems natural that a higher number means more work and more complications.

The group focused on genes they discovered that controlled the amount of arabinoxylan found in plant cell walls. This chemical is responsible for soluble fibre levels and is what determines its viscosity – whether the liquid extract is ‘thin’ like water, or ‘thick’ like syrup.

Using traditional plant breeding methods, they created wheat lines where these genes had stopped working. These are referred to as loss of function or ‘knock out’ lines.

In knock out lines, the arabinoxylan molecules turned out to be shorter and fewer in number. This leads to a whisky-friendly wheat and a liquid extract between 50 and 80% less ‘gloopy’ compared to wheat without the knock-out genes.

To maintain the size and shape of the cells, the plant naturally increased the bonds between the remaining arabinoxylan molecules.

The group has a patent on the use of the gene for this application and is 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."

So this isn't going to be involved in the production of whiskies on shelves next month, or even next year, but eventually this will be changing the way that grain whiskies are made.

“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. This development will allow the wheat to be produced in the UK, meaning less importation and more home-grown produce.

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