UK scientists have bred a new type of wheat better suited to the whisky production process.
They say the development could open up new markets for growers by making UK-grown wheat more desirable for distillers than imported maize.
The wheat, developed at Rothamsted Research in Hertfordshire, is said to reduce processing problems, higher energy use, and wear on pumps caused by using current wheat varieties in the distilling process.
“At present using wheat grain is a problem for distilleries because it causes sticky residues that mean the whole distill-ery must be shut down for cleaning,” said Dr Rowan Mitchell from Rothamsted.
“Our novel wheat is designed to have grain with low levels of soluble dietary fibre and should greatly decrease these problems. Great for whisky making, but the opposite of what’s required by bakers.”
He said the new wheat variety was one of the first in the world to be developed using reverse genetics – a process 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.
The process, also known as tilling, allowed scientists to rapidly breed the gene of their choice into an existing variety of wheat.
They focused on genes that controlled the amount of a chemical found in plant cell walls – arabinoxylan – which is re-sponsible for soluble fibre levels and whether the liquid extra from the grain is thin like water, or thick like honey.
Using traditional plant breeding methods, the scientists created wheat lines where these genes had stopped working.
The arabinoxylan genes in these lines were shorter and fewer in number, meaning the liquid extract from the grain was 50-80% less “gloopy” than standard wheat varieties.
The researchers are now working with plant breeding company Limagrain to develop a new commercial variety.
Dr Simon Berry from 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.”