‘Designer’ wheat variety bred to be for distilling than imported maize
Rothamsted scientists have bred a type of wheat specifically to improve whisky production.
The group’s lead researcher says this new wheat will reduce the processing problems, improve energy use and wear on pumps caused by using current wheat varieties.
Dr. Rowan Mitchell said: “At present using wheat grain is a problem for distilleries because it causes sticky residues that mean the whole distillery must be shut down for cleaning.
Our novel wheat is designed to have grain with low levels of soluble dietary fibre and should greatly decrease these problems. Great for making whisky, but the opposite to what’s required by bakers.
He added that the development will also make UK-grown wheat more desirable for use in whisky compared to imported maize, which is currently easier to process.
How did they do it?
This new wheat line is one of the first wheat 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’ (Target Induced Local Lesions In Genome), allowed them to rapidly breed their gene of choice into an existing wheat variety. It was a complicated process as wheat has six copies of each of its genes compared to only two copies in humans.
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.
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 five 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 UK, worth about £5 billion a year.
The project, which also included the Scotch Whisky Research Institute, was funded by UKRI and Innovate UK.