Scientists Sequence Complete Barley Genome

News by | Jul 2017 | Issue #126
Photo courtesy of Oregon State Barley Project

After more than 10 years of research, the complete barley genome has been sequenced by a consortium of researchers from 11 countries. Published in April in the journal Nature, the project involved identifying some 39,000 genes—nearly twice as many as humans have.

Building on a map of the barley genome published by the International Barley Genome Sequencing Consortium in 2012, the new study’s more detailed sequence gives breeders the information they need to experiment with new varieties.

“The more you know about the genome, the more reliable the malting and brewing process can be,” says Maria Muñoz-Amatriain, a project scientist at the University of California, Riverside who was one of the co-authors of the study. “I think we will have better and tastier beers.”

Knowing what genes are involved in processes like fermentation, flavor, and malting will help barley breeders move more quickly in the development of new varieties for use in beer, she explains.

Previously, breeders grew new varieties in fields and waited a season to see whether genetic changes worked, explains Scott Heisel, vice president and technical director with the American Malting Barley Association, Inc. Now, breeders can grow samples in a lab, then test the barley genes against the sequence database to see if they achieved their goal.

“It’s a much cheaper, more efficient way of plant breeding,” Heisel says, adding that breeders have already used knowledge about parts of the sequencing to develop new varieties.

The findings could help barley farmers grow more productive, disease-resistant crops with less fertilizer. They could also help improve factors like flavor, or increase malt extract, which would allow brewers to make beer using less malt.

“From the industry perspective, it’s all about improving the new varieties that the industry end users, whether they’re making cereals, beers, or whiskey, can utilize,” Heisel says.

By pinpointing a larger than expected number of enzymes, which break down the starch to form sugar in the malting process, explains Muñoz-Amatriain, the study also confirms what many brewers already know: “Barley is the best cereal for beer.” 

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