Tag Archives: barley

Scientists discover drought-resistant gene in barley

Credit: Pixabay.

All crops face increasing stress at the hand of climate change, which, in turn, will weaken our food supply unless we take action.

British researchers at Heriot-Watt University have recently made an important contribution in this regard. After five years of painstaking work, their new study isolated a single gene, called HvMYB1, that increases the survivability of barley against drought.

Securing food… and whiskey!

The findings might have dramatic consequences for the cereal industry, which is particularly vulnerable to the effects of climate changed-induced droughts.

Warmer temperatures can amplify the impacts of drought by enhancing evaporation from soils, making periodic droughts worse than they would be under cooler conditions. Droughts can also persist through a “positive feedback” loop where very dry soils and diminished plant cover can further suppress rainfall in an already dry area.

The researchers led by Peter Morris performed experiments in which they increased the expression of HvMYB1 during simulated conditions of drought. These genetically modified plants were able to survive prolonged periods of drought compared to unmodified control plants.

All of this sounds promising especially after last year’s drought in Europe caused depressingly low yields. In 2018, barley production suffered an 8% loss equivalent to hundreds of millions of tonnes of barley flushed down the drain.

Barley is the main ingredient in both whiskey and beer, both industries worth billions and which employ tens of thousands of people.

In the future, the researchers plan on breeding more improved strains of barley. What’s interesting is that virtually all plants carry a similar gene, so this research could have wide implications across the whole cereal industry.

The findings were reported in the journal Plant Physiology and Biochemistry.


US brewery wants to make beer on Mars — so they’re space-testing barley seeds next week

US-based breweries AB InBev wants to give future space colonists the opportunity of getting positively plastered. The company will be sending 20 malting barley seeds to the ISS early next month to see how this critical ingredient fares in microgravity.


Image via Pixabay.

Mars can be a bleak place, so why not crack open a cold one to help you unwind after a hard day of colonizing? That, at least, is what Anheuser-Busch InBev (AB InBev, the company behind Budweiser) proposes. Since there’s no beer like a fresh one, however, the brewing company plans to give future spacefarers all they need to brew their own brew on the go. The first step will be to check if barley crops can grow outside of Earth, and as such AB is sending 20 malting barley seeds to the ISS. The cereal is one of the four main ingredients used for the brew.

The mission will fulfill a promise AB InBev made last March at the South by Southwest music festival in Austin, Texas, that it “would create a beer suitable for drinking in space […] and when people get there they will toast on Budweiser.”

“Sending our barley to the International Space Station is a big step towards our goal of creating a microgravity brew,” said Ricardo Marques, Budweiser marketing vice president, said in an email.

“Our obsession with innovation led us to this place, and we couldn’t be more excited for Budweiser to be the beer one day enjoyed on the red planet.”

The experiment itself will help better our understanding of how space-borne cereals in general and barley, in particular, will fare. What AB InBev researchers want to see is the effects an off-planet environment will have on the seeds, with a particular interest in microgravity and their germination process. Specifically, they’ll evaluate whether sufficiently cool and dry conditions can be maintained (needed for proper barley storage) and whether the seeds grow at least 6-10 inches (15.2-25.4 cm) the first two weeks, as they do planet-side.

The seeds will be held aboard the ISS for one month. After landing back on Earth, they will be taken to AB InBev’s American innovation team in Colorado. In the end, the data gleaned from the malted barley will help them determine whether space breeding and storage of the cereal is feasible. If yes, it would likely form the base for an entire off-world beer brewing industry.


Barley malt — what every burgeoning space-beer industry needs.
Image credits Tomasz Mikołajczyk.

The breweries will be working together with the Center for Advancement of Science in Space (CASIS), a non-profit that manages the US’ National Lab facility aboard the ISS, and Space Tango, a private company that runs two commercial research units within the National Lab.

“Budweiser is taking the commitment to create microgravity beer very seriously, which is why we’ve partnered with leaders in the space industry like CASIS,” a company spokesperson said. “Together with our Liquid Innovation team, the duo will conduct experiments on the International Space Station, to begin the process of understanding how we can create a microgravity beer.”

Brave new frontier or grab for attention?

So is this a market stunt? It’s definitely that, too — AB is, after all, a company that has to turn a profit.

At the same time, it’s difficult to overstate just how much humans love alcohol. There is evidence our ancestors made and enjoyed wine as early as 8,000 years ago. We’ve teased out 5,000-year-old beer recipes from ancient Chinese pottery and of course we’ve made some and drank it. In fact, it’s possible one of the principal reasons humans ever settled down at all was because we wanted to get drunk more easily. It’s likely that we’ve also actually made an evolutionary effort just to be able to get smashed. It all means that when humans eventually leave the Earth for other homes among the stars, alcoholic drinks will come along to power merry times, poor choices, and health issues.

AB isn’t the first company to sniff out a good profit margin in the whole affair. Two years ago, Japanese-based distillery Suntory launched whiskey offworld (also to the ISS) to study the “development of mellowness in alcoholic beverage through the use of a microgravity environment.” As did Ardberg Scotch Whiskey in 2011, keeping their brew in orbit up to 2014. On the other end of the bottle, Scottish manufacturer Ballantine handily designed a space glass that will let astronauts imbibe but never spill their drink while getting tipsy in 0G.

Right now, we have to wait and see how Anheuser-Busch’s seeds fare. If everything goes well, however, we’re bound to see more research in the field of space booze — and, ultimately, even finished products. The seeds will be sent to space on the upcoming cargo supply mission SpaceX’s CRS-13, scheduled to be launched on December 4 from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, Florida.

Barley’s full genome sequenced after decade-long research effort

After more than a decade of work, an international team consisting of over 70 researchers is poised to make your beer fuller and your Scotch neater — they have successfully sequenced the complete genome of barley, a major crop and key ingredient in the two brews.


Image credits Hans Braxmeier.

We’ve got a long and alcohol-imbibed history with barley. It has been a staple crop for us and animal feed as well as underpinned breweries ever since the agricultural revolution. Today, barley is a major component in all-purpose flour for bread and pastries, graces breakfast tables as an ingredient in cereals, is the prime ingredient in single malt Scotch, lends beer its color, body, the protein to form a good head, and the natural sugars needed for its fermentation.

Selective breeding has allowed farmers to develop tastier, more nutritious barley with a greater yield over that time – but there’s still room for improvement, as the crop’s genome was barley known, limiting the effectiveness of breeding efforts.

Now, the International Barley Genome Sequencing Consortium (IBSC) a team of 77 researchers from around the world report that they’ve successfully sequenced the full genome of barley families heavily relied on for malting processes. This allowed them to pinpoint the bits of code that formed “genetic bottlenecks” during domestication, and further breeding efforts focus on increasing diversity in these areas and make the crops even better. It should also help scientists working with other crops in the grass family such as rice, wheat, or oats.

It may not sound like a huge accomplishment until you consider that barley’s genome is almost double the size of a human’s, and large swathes of it (around 80%) is composed of highly repetitive sequences, which made it incredibly hard for the team to focus on specific locations in the genome. The team had to make major advances in and sequencing technology, algorithmic design, and computing for the task at hand. Their findings provide knowledge of more than 39,000 barley genes.

“This takes the level of completeness of the barley genome up a huge notch,” said Timothy Close, a professor of genetics at UC Riverside and co-author of the paper.

“It makes it much easier for researchers working with barley to be focused on attainable objectives, ranging from new variety development through breeding to mechanistic studies of genes.”

One finding, in particular, surprised the scientists, and it has to do with the malting process. This involves germinating and then crushing the grains and is a key step in brewing. During germination, seeds produce amylase, a protein which breaks down their store of starch into simple sugars – which will ferment into alcohol. The team’s sequencing efforts revealed there was much more variability than expected in the genes encoding the amylase.

The full paper “A chromosome conformation capture ordered sequence of the barley genome” has been published in the journal Nature.

Mixed legume and cereal crops don’t need fertilizer to yield a lot of food

Planting legumes alongside cereals could improve crop yields and reduce the environmental impact of farms, researchers have found.

Image credits Hans Braxmeier / Pixabay.

Following the Green Revolution and the wide-scale implementation of intensive farming, nitrogen fertilizers became vital for the way we grow crops. It has become essential to maintain high crop yields, with cereal crops usually getting around 110 kg of nitrogen fertilizer per hectare. But this nitrogen is usually derived from fossil fuels and it has a huge carbon footprint. The work of Dr Pietro Iannetta of the James Hutton Institute on intercropping could drastically reduce or remove our need for such fertilizers altogether. The findings were presented at the British Ecological Society’s annual meeting in Liverpool last week.

Intercropping is the practice of growing two or more types of crops on the same soil at the same time, as opposed to the intensive farming practice of planting a singe crop per field at a time.Dr Iannetta’s work shows that adopting this method of farming could cut greenhouse gas emissions by reducing the need for fertilizers, while boosting biodiversity, food security, and widening markets for local food and drinks at the same time.

A peas of cake

Dr Iannetta grew trial crops of peas and barley together at a 50-50% rate and found that despite using not nitrogen fertilizer, he could produce a total yield in excess of what barley alone would produce. This happens because peas and other legumes fix their own nitrogen — when grown with other crops such as barley, the peas supply the cereal’s nitrogen requirement.

Related story: Make your own compost.

Not only cheaper and more efficient, but this approach is also cleaner. Dr Iannetta estimates that emissions could be reduced by 420,000 tonnes of CO2 equivalent if the UK planted its spring barley alongside legumes and used no fertilizer. That’s the equivalent CO2 that over 420,000 trees process in a year. And, since agriculture makes up around 15% of global greenhouse emissions, this approach could make a huge difference.

Western agriculture currently relies on a narrow range of crops — it’s wheat, barley, and potato heavy. By growing more legumes alongside these staples, intercropping would boost diversity and help make farming more resilient to environmental factors, crop diseases, and pests. It would also help diversify farmers’ produce, and the wider range of locally-available crops would stimulate new markets for sustainable foodstuffs. To this end, Dr Iannetta is also working on developing new ways to brew peas and beans into alcohol. With the help of Professor Graeme Walker of Abertay University working on the enzymes involved in fermentation, Barney’s Beer in Edinburgh, and Arbikie Distillery in Arbroath, he’s working on developing a beer made from 40% whole faba beans.

“Beans are notoriously difficult to ferment, but we have discovered a way of doing this by neutralising the fermentation inhibitors,” he explains.

“Tundra [the beer] is a wonderful, heavily hopped American IPA. By turning pulse starch into fermentable sugars and alcohol from 40% beans intercropped with 60% barley — we have produced a beer using 40% less artificial fertiliser.”

Such research is particularity relevant in countries with little arable soil, those who can’t afford fertilizers, or countries with a heavy tradition in brewing. Scotland, for example, uses 60% of all non-grazing arable land to grow barley, around half of which is for malting and distilling.

“Minimising the amount of artificial nitrogen used to grow barley would save carbon, save money and deliver Scottish whisky — the UK’s greatest export and tax revenue resource — in a more sustainable way.”

“The public wants healthier food that is grown more sustainably. It’s great that shops are now selling grain legume-based crisps and bread, but I wish they used more home-grown legumes. There is a huge opportunity for small growers to diversify and shorten their supply chains by developing their own high-quality legume-based products.”

The by-product of the fermentation is also high in proteins, which can be used as feed in fisheries. Dr Iannetta hopes to have commercially available green beers and neutral spirits by the end of 2017.

“These will have been produced using no human-made fertilisers, and give co-products that provide sustainable and profitable protein production for the food chain,” he concludes.


Closer to brewing the perfect beer after scientists sequence barley genome

Barley is a key ingredient in beer, the third most popular drink in the world after water and tea, an industry which currently amounts to $300 billion a year. The quality of the barley greatly influences the savor of beer, so by growing better quality barley we might be able to brew a beer that’s closer to perfection. A worthy cause indeed for science, and with or without this exactly in mind, an international consortium of scientists have recently published a  high-resolution draft of the barley genome, allowing scientists onward to improve yields and disease resistance, and maybe equally importantly brew a better beer.

barleyBarley is  the world’s fourth most important cereal crop in terms of area of cultivation and quantity produced. Mapping its genome is a first critical step to engineering variants that can cope with the demands of climate change and are resistant to the various disease that currently plague barley and amount to billions in damage, worldwide. For instance, before the 1990′s Minnesota had millions of acres of barley. Today that has dwindled to about 120,000 acres because of an epidemic of Fusarium head blight.

“This research will streamline efforts to improve barley production through breeding for improved varieties,” said Professor Robbie Waugh, of Scotland’s James Hutton Institute, who led the research. “This could be varieties better able to withstand pests and disease, deal with adverse environmental conditions, or even provide grain better suited for beer and brewing.”

The team of researchers, , consisting of scientists from 22 organizations around the globe and called the International Barley Genome Sequencing Consortium (IBSC), published a first high-resolution draft of the barley genome, revealing structure and order for most of its 32,000 gene. Their research, however, wasn’t without obstacles. For one, the barley genome is almost twice the size of that of the human genome; moreover, the barley genome contains a large proportion of closely related sequences that are difficult to piece together into a true linear order. These challenges were overcome with success, eventually.

Their results will help scientists produce better quality and more resistant barley, indispensable to beer and whiskey production, but also to the meat and dairy industries, where barley is a principle animal feed product.

“It will accelerate research in barley, and its close relative, wheat,” Waugh said. “Armed with this information breeders and scientists will be much better placed to deal with the challenge of effectively addressing the food security agenda under the constraints of a rapidly changing environment.”

The findings were reported in the journal Nature.