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New wheat variety to boost UK whisky production

Copyright: fronx on Flickr by CC 2.0

New UK wheat varieties promise to boost the UK whisky industry by reducing the viscosity of the wheat grain extract used in the distillation process, making whisky production more efficient.

BBSRC-funded researchers led by Dr Rowan Mitchell at Rothamsted Research found that the viscosity of extracts from wheat grain could be decreased by more than 70% by reducing the activity of three specific genes. Extract viscosity leads to increased cleaning costs and down-time for whisky distillers, who will sometimes choose imported maize, which doesn’t have the same extract viscosity problem, rather than UK wheat. As a result, a low viscosity wheat variety would benefit both UK farmers and whisky distillers.

Data breakout

500,000 Tonnes of wheat produced in the UK for distillation alon
£4Bn Market value of the UK distilling industry
3 Number of genes identified by Rothamsted researchers that control the viscosity of wheat
£145k Value of BBSRC follow-on funding for the research

By developing genetically modified (GM) wheat in which the activity of target genes had been reduced, Mitchell and colleagues could show which genes were responsible for extract viscosity. Methodology learned during a visit, supported by a BBSRC ITAS award, to Dr Luc Saulnier's lab at INRA, France then enabled the researchers to fully characterise their GM wheat lines.

Understanding which genes were responsible enabled the researchers to use a non-GM technique called TILLING to find novel variants of the genes in a population of wheat. Conventional breeding then allowed them to incorporate those variants into a new wheat variety, which was found to have more than 70% decreased extract viscosity. Limagrain are now incorporating the novel gene variants into their wheat breeding programme.

The research was supported by BBSRC follow-on funding and an AgriTech Catalyst Challenge Award with multinational wheat breeder Limagrain and the Scotch Whisky Research Institute.

Key impacts

  • Wheat genes are being incorporated into commercial wheat varieties, leading to:
    • reduction in time and costs of whisky production to improve industry productivity
    • reduced reliance on imported maize and boost to UK wheat farmers
    • new wheat variety also likely to be beneficial for animal feed.

Header image copyright: fronx on Flickr by CC 2.0