The discovery that could shake up the beer industry

Jaswinder Singh can hardly contain his excitement when talking about TLP8, a useful protein he discovered in barley.

“It could revolutionize the brewing industry,” said the associate professor at McGill University’s plant science department.

Maltsters despise beta-glucan, a key sugar found in barley. If it is not properly degraded during the malting and germination process it can lead to highly viscous wort, which creates headaches.

“There will be a problem during filtration. The wort will be difficult to filter,” said Singh.

That is why malt barley breeders always select varieties with low levels of beta-glucan.

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Singh and his research team identified 22 genes in barley that were related to the germination process.

One of those genes produces the TLP8 protein, which is expressed differently in malt versus feed varieties. It is found at three times higher levels in malt varieties like AC Metcalfe, Bentley and Morex than in feed varieties such as Cowboy, Coalition and Steptoe.

Singh also noticed that during the germination process the amount of beta-glucan was reduced by 60 percent in malt varieties compared to 20 percent in feed varieties.

He realized it was the TLP8 protein that was helping reduce beta-glucan levels by binding itself to the sugar during germination.

Now that it has been identified, a number of things could be done with the protein to enhance the efficiency of the malting process.

New molecular markers can be developed to assist breeders to quickly identify which varieties have high levels of the TLP8 protein.

Gene editing technology could be used to increase the amount of the protein in malt barley varieties.

Or the protein could be synthesized on a large scale and used as an additive in the malting-brewing process.

Andrew Nguyen, malting and brewing technical specialist with the Canadian Malting Barley Technical Centre, thinks Singh’s discovery is a big deal.

“I can tell you right now, that would be of high interest to people in the malting-brewing community,” he said. “I would say that is a pretty significant finding.”

High beta-glucan levels are a major contributing factor to poor quality malt, resulting in reduced malt extract levels and lower alcohol yields.

“High beta-glucans are usually just all bad,” he said.

Nguyen said genetic modification isn’t common in malt barley varieties, but if something could be done using traditional breeding techniques to identify lines with high levels of the TLP8 protein it would be well received.

Maltsters already use glucanases enzymes to break down beta-glucan during the malting-brewing process but those enzymes are temperature sensitive whereas the TLP8 protein is not.

The next step in the research process is to see if the protein performs the same way in the real world as it did in the lab. Maltsters will be providing Singh and his team with wort samples to see if the protein decreases the amount of viscosity.

“The concept is there. The hypothesis is proved. It is just a matter of doing it,” said Singh.

“I really want to see viscosity changes.”

The second phase of the research project could take up to one year and if everything goes as planned the malting industry could soon have a promising new tool that will make the whole process more efficient.

A separate project could be spun off from Singh’s research discovery. Breeders could create varieties with low levels of the TLP8 protein, which could increase the amount of beta-glucan in those varieties.

Beta-glucan is a dietary fibre, so the idea would be to produce barley that could be used to enhance the amount of fibre in food products like cereal.

“It can also revolutionize, in the future, the food industry,” said Singh.

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