Barley Landscapes

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Barley field, Palouse, Washington (USA)
Credit: Victor Szalvay

As someone who enjoys single malt whisky, when I think of the malted barley that is at its heart, I have some sort of fuzzy romantic image of it like the one above. Spacious skies, swaying waves of grain, and so on.

But of course, as the world’s fourth most important grain (in terms of cropland and quantity), barley is big business. One of the original cornerstones of human agriculture, barley has been under cultivation for an estimated 10,000 years. These days, it’s used mainly for the production of beer and whisky, but it also, as animal feed and as winter bedding, it underpins the meat and dairy industries.

With the growth of the global whisky market – and the increase in whisky production outside Scotland – the demand for barley for malting purposes has only gone up over the past couple of decades.

Oats, once the main grain crop in Scotland, have long since been displaced by barley cultivation. Still, Scotland has all but reached its limits in arable land available for the barley that would keep the entire production chain within the country, from field to bottle.

Large malting groups negotiate the global barley trade, and as climate change alters temperature zones, seed companies look to develop and promote barley

Landscape of the barley gene space Source: IBSC / Nature

Landscape of the barley gene space
Source: IBSC / Nature

cultivars that can take the heat and still yield up an acceptable amount of alcohol.

And now, the barley genome has been partially sequenced.

A paper published in Nature late last year gave an overview of barley’s innermost workings that provides a roadmap for further development.

The research was produced by the International Barley Sequencing Consortium (IBSC), a collaborative group founded in 2006 with the immediate objective of completing the genomic sequencing of its subject, and the long-term aim of improving global crop security.

Not quite the rustling romance of a barley field under the sun, but the landscape of the barley gene space reveals its own intricate mystery.

And here’s a tune that doesn’t have much to do with barley, but is a good whisky song anyway.

More:

International Barley Sequencing Consortium (IBSC) website with numerous publicly accessible data resources

Nature paper A physical, genetic and functional sequence assembly of the barley genome by The International Barley Genome Sequencing Consortium

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