All grains contain peptides that mimic morphine or endogenous opioid substances. This is where I deal with my latest loaf craving. Get your bread-based exorphin fix here.

Wednesday, March 27, 2013

Pan Integral celebrates Cracked Wheat

Today was a perfect day to make another 100% whole wheat bread, with nothing but wheat kernels, water, salt, and my wheat sourdough.  Yet another pan integral.

I had been working nights all weekend, and I didn't want to think about what ingredients to add.  This is the economy of simple.  It is wheat (100%), milled fine, added to water (80%), tossed with salt (2%), and sourdough (20%): voila.  The perfect bread for tired minds.

This is also the perfect bread for today because this is a red-letter day in the history of wheat.   March 25, the day when the world has finally sequenced wheat's genome.

Wheat's Code Cracked
Yes, wheat took much longer to sequence than the human genome.  Of course, what we learned in solving the genome of yeast and other relatively simpler organisms was a help for us as we began to sequence the human genome.  And the tools that were developed for our own DNA have now helped us to sequence the DNA of other living things that are important to us.  Like wheat.

These polyploid species are pretty complex.  When the raw data was published back in 2010, researchers claimed that "the wheat genome is five times larger than the human genome and presents a huge challenge for scientists."  It is also 8x larger than maize, 40x larger than rice.

But just having a giant string of letters like we already had in 2010 didn't mean we were closer to understanding it.  What today's news means is, now we can put a name to each of the wheat genes of the A genome.  In 2010 we had the alphabet.  Now we have the dictionary.

This project has been taking place for years, via an international task group (International Wheat Genome Sequencing Consortium).  It began in 2005, following the influential article by IWGSC (Gill, B. et al (2004). A Workshop Report on Wheat Genome Sequencing.  Genetics 168(2) pp. 1087-1096).  In 2011 in Cannes, the G20 nations approved the international effort.  China was one of the nations invested and involved.

It makes sense that the project was completed under the auspices of Chinese researchers in Beijing. China has the biggest stake in the project, after all: China grows more wheat than any other nation.  And China imports more wheat than any other nation.  In other words, China consumes a lot of wheat, and it is costly to them.  China is invested.  It makes perfect sense that a nation so dependent upon wheat would want to learn about wheat -- with the ultimate aim of improving it, of course.  Improving yields, and nutrition, and varieties that will grow well in China's varied climates makes perfect sense.

Back in December, Nature indicated that Britain, Germany and the US were working on the genome.  Since the raw data of the sequence has been published in the UK in 2010, many breakthroughs have been cited, and newer tools were devised to examine boring slices of gene code.  These tools would garner excitement among geneticists (e.g. Wheat genome's key parts unlocked in new study (2012)), but the rest of us would roll our eyes and say "what?"  But now pretty much anyone can jump into the murky waters of wheat's DNA with online databases like this one.

What will it mean for wheat, now that the geni is out of the bottle?

Now we can write novels, using the dictionary of wheat's DNA.

I remember very clearly returning to school as an older adult and taking a basic anatomy class, and thinking that very little had changed in biological science since I took courses in university as a younger adult.  They were still teaching the same old definition of life that I had learned back in high school, back in the dark ages -- that something is considered alive when it consumes, grows, reproduces.

But recently I read another book that challenges that.  And its not a biology text, its something else, part science, part philosophy, part vision: Beach, J. (2010) Symbolic Life: the Future of Human Evolution.  Beach sat down in a library, preparing to write a book, and his surroundings gave him the eureka moment that thereafter occupied his mind and his life for decades.  "I suddenly realized that I was sitting in the middle of a new and vastly more powerful type of gene that had freed us from the leash that tethers all other animals to their DNA," he writes of his insight.  

"Life generates and stores information through selection and then uses this information to guide its actions," Beach later elaborates.  "The 'information' of a living system is the coded instructions in its DNA, but it also can be the DNA translation machinery in each cell or the learned information in an animal's brain or nervous system."  Specifically, human consciousness arose as an adaptation to store and use information.  

Beach's rather dizzying vision suggests that while humans are bound to their DNA, new symbolic life forms are evolving to handle new levels of information.  Humans will be domesticated by these symbolic life forms, and we cannot stop this evolution.  It is already happening, as humans give life to governments, corporations and other organizing bodies.  We as individuals surrender some of our independent will to these entities; but their survival, and their means of using information, is beyond our control.  The final symbolic life form that is selected will be the one that best exploits reality.

Since the completion of the human genome project, Beach writes, "We have already been uploaded and we didn't even notice."  Beach sees humans as a sort of interface to the new symbolic life form.

This Bread
Wheat is going to change (as it has already changed, ever since we began this symbiotic dance with it called agriculture).  It is inevitable, as inevitable as we ourselves are changing.  We can't stop it.  If we try to, we will die as a species.  

Life will find another way to exploit reality -- or it won't.  The universe can continue on expanding until it peters out, and no one will be the wiser.

Today I bake bread, and raise a toast to the brave men and women of the Chinese scientists of the Wheat Genome project, who have cracked the code of wheat.  Not so very long ago on an evolutionary scale, humans first cracked the grain and started the ball of human civilization rolling with a little thing called agriculture.  

What will this new information start, I wonder?

One of the finest breads I've ever made.  A little stiff to make, at 80% hydration, but workable.

Nice even crumb.  Good taste.  I'm happy with this bread.

Notes to Myself
  • Another reason why it was perfect to make a pan integral today: it was snowing out.  I hate late March snows.  I mean, really, we've had enough winter already.  I want warmer brighter weather before I slip outside.  Also: I'm fasting.  Nothing to do but hang out and play with dough.

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