UNRAVELED www.foodtechnology.co.nz 41 After a decade of study, an international team of scientists has finally unraveled the genome of barley, an achievement that could not only lead to tastier beer and whiskey, but a better understanding of other staple food crops. Showing up in your cereal in the morning, your sandwich at lunch, and your beers or single malt Scotch whiskey after work, the humble barley grain is one of the most widely grown and consumed crops on Earth. Its importance stretches back as far as 10,000 years, and improving our understanding of it means we can grow varieties more selectively to help feed (and intoxicate) the growing population. While it might look like a pretty simple organism, barley has some 39,000 genes to its name – almost twice as many as there are in the human genome. To make the job even more challenging, 80 % of the genes are arranged in highly repetitive sequences, which makes pinning down their precise locations in the genome extremely difficult. As a result, it took 10 years for a team of 77 scientists to piece together the plant’s entire sequence. Spearheaded by the International Barley Genome Sequencing Consortium, the project involved researchers from across the globe, including the US, UK, Australia, Germany, China, Czech Republic, Denmark, Finland, Sweden and Switzerland. Many barley products rely on the grains being malted first, which means they’re soaked in water to start the germination process, then interrupted and dried out. The amylase proteins then converts starch into sugars, which yeast can feed on to ferment the mix into alcohol. To their surprise, the researchers found that there were far more genes that encoded for amylase than they expected. The completed sequence can also help improve the overall quality of barley crops, by identifying parts of the genome that might be holding breeders back, and showing them which genes they should be selecting for. The study could also prove to be a solid foundation to better understand related crops, like rice and wheat. “This takes the level of completeness of the barley genome up a huge notch,” says Timothy Close, one of the study’s many authors. “It makes it much easier for researchers working with barley to be focused on attainable objectives, ranging from new variety development through breeding to mechanistic studies of genes.” The research was published in the journal Nature. class’ social marker. Either way, China is now the 6th leading consumer of wine in the world (17.3mhl), just behind Germany, and with a 2017 population of 1.4 billion, the potential is considerable. With a new market and a government working to build the foundations for a national wine industry, China now has the second largest area under cultivation in the world, taking over France and just behind Spain, which it’s expected to overtake in the next five years. Vines are grown in dozens of provinces, including Shandong, Hebei and Tianjin, as well as the autonomous regions of Xinjiang, Ningxia and Inner Mongolia. Whatever the country, where there is local production consumers tend to favour it. As they become more familiar with wine, they begin to try those from other countries, and this represents an important growth lever for international trade. That’s why 40% of the wines produced globally are exported, compared to just 20% in the early 1990s. Although how we consume wine is shaped to a large extent by cultural context, knowledge of the world of wine, the techniques for analysing its sensory qualities, and trends set by certain internationally known experts also play a part. Countries with newer wine industries must therefore introduce their wines to other countries while steadily building recognition and a kind of wine-making pedigree. This too has the effect of stimulating international trade. For the French wine industry, while the landscape has shifted the foundations remain solid. France continues to challenge Spain and Italy for the title of the world’s No.1 producer by volume, and it continues to lead the world in terms of value, as it long has. France produced 43.5mhl of wine in 2016, compared to 50.9mhl for Italy (15% less), yet the value of France’s exports was 8.2 billion euros compared to 2.6 billion for Italy – over three times more, and 28.5% of the total value of the global wine market. The figures confirm that French wines are perceived and purchased as high added-value products, and France continues to excel at capitalising on the quality of its wines. While Spain is the leading exporter by volume, the price of Spanish per unit remain low on the international markets, with a total value of just 2.6 billion euros. One immediately thinks of Champagnes, revered and undisputed as the sparkling wine ‘par excellence’, as well as the great Bordeaux and Burgundies, and more recently the Provence rosés. French wines are also exported to more countries than wines of any other nationality and generally speaking, any new importer starts by ‘listing’ French wines before looking at any other foreign producers. This is a reflection of what the French industry has been able to convey to wine lovers the world over in terms of image, quality and diversity. In the coming years, as wine-producing countries continue to seek to maintain and expand their domestic and international market shares, they’ll also need to adapt to ongoing climate change. For example, Brazilian production dropped 55% between 2015 and 2016 because of a strong El Niño, while production fell in drought-stricken South Africa. An increasingly strategic approach is being developed, including specialised research schools. At all levels around the world, stakeholders are engaging with governments and decision makers to increase the industry’s competitiveness and better tackle these new international challenges. BARLEY GENOME Sequencing the entire genome of an organism is no easy feat, but the benefits can be as important as saving species from the brink of extinction, fighting cancer, getting rid of pests – and now, brewing better booze.
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