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Refined wheat to replace maize for whisky

A team of scientists from Rothamsted Research have grown a special type of wheat for whisky production

The new and improved version of wheat will not just reduce the processing problems, but also decrease the use of energy required for making whisky. It will also lead to a reduced wear-and-tear of the pumps, caused by the current wheat varieties.

Rothamsted’s Dr Rowan Mitchell said, “At present using wheat grain causes sticky residue in the distilleries, and the frequent cleaning, causes them to shut down.”

“Our novel wheat is designed to have grains with low levels of soluble dietary fibre, and should reduce such problems. It is great for making whisky, but the opposite of what the bakers require.” 

The latest development will make the UK-grown wheat much more desirable to use, than imported maize, which is used to make whisky through an easier process.

The new wheat line is a rare wheat variety which has been developed using reverse genetics, where scientists start with the awareness of a gene’s functional quality, rather than looking for a specific trait in the plant and tracing its genes responsible for certain behaviour.

Their non-GM approach, called TILLING, allowed them to breed their gene of choice into an existing wheat variety, which was a challenging task, considering wheat has six copies of each gene, compared to that of two copies of each, in humans.

The group focused on the genes they discovered, that controlled the amount of a chemical found in plant cell walls, called arabinoxylan, which is responsible for the soluble fibre levels and viscosity of the wheat product.

They used traditional plant breeding methods to create wheat lines where these genes had stopped working, referred to as loss of function lines. There, the arabinoxylan molecules were shorter and fewer in number, leading to whisky-friendly wheat, that produces a liquid extract which is 50-80 per cent less clumpy, compared to normal wheat.

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.

The group have patented the use of the gene for this application, and are now working with plant breeding company Limagrain to develop a new commercial variety.

Dr Simon Berry, market specialist at Limagrain, said, “There will be a pilot-scale test on one-fourth of one-tonne grain, at a distillery this year and we are aiming for an official trials entry within the next five years.”

“Low viscosity wheat would enable the use of UK wheat in distilling and offer a solution to those distillers who are still using maize,” he added.

The UK produces Scotch worth about US$6,08,10,50,000 per year.

Rothamsted Research, the project includes the Scotch Whisky Research Institute, and was funded by UKRI and Innovate UK.