beer_&_barleyTwo members of the Australian Research Council’s Centre of Excellence in Plant Cell Walls at the Waite Campus of the University of Adelaide have teamed up with Japanese colleagues to identify the “snooze button” in barley, a gene involved in the “waking up” process that is important for beer production.

Professor Geoff Fincher and PhD student Julian Schwerdt are co-authors on a paper published by the group in Nature Communications. The researchers compared domesticated and wild barley to identify the gene controlling dormancy.

Shortly after the domestication of barley in the Middle East 10,000 years ago, farmers noticed that some barley grain would “wake up” (or germinate) much quicker than other more wild varieties that “snoozed” (lay dormant) for many months. The farmers selected the faster germinating barley for sowing their crops. The selection of barley with a short dormancy period also enabled the farmers to start brewing immediately after harvest.

“Beer production involves the controlled germination of barley grain to produce fermentable extracts and a long dormancy period of several months severely delayed the process.” says Professor Geoff Fincher, Emeritus Professor in the University’s School of Agriculture, Food and Wine.

“The discovery adds fuel to the debate as to whether the bringing together of ancient human groups into the first agrarian societies was driven by our appetite for wheat, flour and bread, or for barley, beer and alcohol.” he says.

The Japanese group, led by Professor Kaz Sato, used genetic methods to identify the barley dormancy gene.

The barley dormancy gene identified encodes an enzyme, known as alanine aminotransferase (AlaAT). Although the precise mechanism through which the enzyme shortens dormancy is not clear, the enzyme sits at an important junction in biochemical pathways of nitrogen and carbon metabolism and is known to be affected by low oxygen concentrations, as might be found in stored grain.

LINK: Listen to an interview with Professor Geoff Fincher on ABC Rural

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