SCIENTISTS are planning genetically to alter barley in a bid to boost Scotland’s whisky industry.
Barley is a key ingredient in the Water of Life – but 10% of the Scottish crop is damaged by a normally benign fungus which can turn on the plant.
That means the industry – worth £4.3bn to the Scottish economy – has to rely on barley imports to maintain production.
Scientists at the Scottish Agricultural College (SRUC) have been given £1m to work out why the fungus attacks and see if they can engineer a solution.
Making Scotch whisky with Scottish-only grain will improve the quality of the product, according to Dr Neil Havis of the college.
The three-year project will see researchers from the SRUC, the James Hutton Institute in Dundee and Aarhus University in Denmark studying the pathogen like fungus.
Dr Havis, a plant pathologist, said: “Ramularia is a huge problem for farmers around the world and we want to find out why it suddenly starts attacking the plant.
“When we know this we can go on to study older, less-favoured strains of barley plants to see if they have any resistance to the toxins.
“If we find this then we’ll be able to transfer that resistance into the current strands that are used by farmers and it will mean we a far better quality, more consistent crop is produced.”
Dr Havis explained that the fungus dramatically slows down the plant’s light absorption rate meaning it has less energy to produce good grain.
He added: “ We hope this research will help us produce stronger varieties which can withstand Ramularia and so ensure we continue to harvest large amounts of barley every year and might even improve the taste of the products it’s used in”
The Dutch government appealed to the Scots scientists for their expertise surrounding the Ramularia’s “genetic key”.
The initial work will be covered by the £1m fund but any future genetic modification would require additional funding, thought to cost hundreds of thousands of pounds.
Ramularia is still a relatively new disease and little is known about it except that it affects growers in Scotland and the north of England worst.
The main symptoms of the disease are rectangular brown spots which are surrounded by a lighter yellow halo and soon after the plant withers and dies.
Scotland currently produces barley on land that equates to 420,000 football pitches but is losing around 25,000 hectares a year as the fungus makes it unusable.
Reports last month revealed that some distilleries were having to import grain grown in England to help meet the demand.
A Scotch Whisky Association spokesman said: “As a long-term business, the Scotch Whisky industry is always looking at different aspects of production, including cereals research, to ensure sustainable supply.
“As a major buyer of Scottish barley, research into ramularia leaf spot is welcome.”