DNA fingerprinting comes to the aid of the Hogmanay dram

Work done by crop scientists at SCRI, Scotland’s world-leading research institute based at Invergowrie near Dundee, could help the whisky industry to remain as one of the top Scottish exports.

Scotch Whisky is one of the most productive industries in Scotland, second only to oil and gas. The economic impact of the industry in 2008 was £3.9bn GVA (gross value added).1

The SCRI scientists have released details of how they are using DNA fingerprinting techniques normally associated with police investigations to improve the quality of barley used in whisky making.

Happily it makes the processing easier, so benefitting the producer as well. Malting barley is the dominant Scottish arable crop yet until recently the underlying key aspects of sustainable production and quality was poorly understood. That was making it difficult to develop new varieties that improve the competitiveness of its production.

The Tayside scientists have developed the ability to DNA fingerprint different barley varieties. In addition, they have developed collections of different barley types that either have been - or will be - scored for key aspects of barley yield and quality. The technique enables researchers to identify specific DNA markers that can be utilised by plant breeders and processors in the identification of varieties for growing and processing.

One of the markers does the valuable job in the very early stages of production of enhancing the purity of Scotch Whisky. Barley breeders are using the markers developed by SCRI to improve the long term sustainability of the distilling industry.

The sheer volume of data generated in the DNA work presents its own problems but the Scottish scientists have developed their own DNA fingerprint database that allows efficient storage and evaluation of the information. The technology is being shared with other partners and researchers around the world...further underlining Scotland’s leading position in research. Other successes include using the barley database to highlight unique features of heritage barley varieties grown in the Highlands and Islands and identifying one of the key factors affecting the number of grains produced on barley ears.

Julie Hesketh-Laird, the SWA's Director of Operational & Technical Affairs, said: "Access to the right quality and quantity of malting barley is vital to make Scotch Whisky. SCRI's research has an important role to play in optimising the barley varieties available to Scotland's distillers and supports the long term sustainability of our supply chain."

Notes to editors

1. Source: The Economic Impact of Scotch Whisky Production in Scotland, May 2010.

Published on 29 December 2010 in Sustainability and Communities