field of wheat field of wheat Out of all the animals and plants in the world, humans eat more grass than any other kind of food. (Photo: A. and I. Kruk/Shutterstock)

Scientists figure out the genetic secrets of humanity's most important food

This new genome sequence could lead to less hunger worldwide.

Humans eat on all kinds of food – perks of being omnivores – but one type towers over the others, and it looks a lot like your front lawn. According to the United Nations, there are over 50,000 edible plants in the world, but rice, maize and wheat are responsible for 60 percent of humanity's calories. These three grains are all different kinds of grass.

So why doesn't wheat look like a suburban yard? Humans have modified these plants for millennia (grains contain a lot of calories, and they're easy to store). So it's strange that we know so little about their "roots" ... until now.

A global team of scientists from the United States, Canada and Israel have finally unlocked the genome sequence of wild emmer, the plant that wheat and pasta came from. Kansas State University's Dr. Eduard Akhunov, who worked on the study, gives a little explanation in the video below:

"From a biological and historical viewpoint, we have created a 'time tunnel' we can use to examine wheat from before the origins of agriculture," explained Dr. Assaf Distelfeld, a Tel Aviv University professor who helped lead the research from his lab in Israel. "Our comparison to modern wheat has enabled us to identify the precise genes that allowed domestication – the transition from wheat grown in the wild to modern-day varieties. While the seeds of wild wheat readily fall off the plant and scatter, a change in two genes meant that in domesticated wheat, the seeds remained attached to the stalk; it is this trait that enabled humans to harvest wheat."

It was no simple task. Wild emmer's genome is three times the size of the human genome and actually has more protein and antioxidants than domesticated wheat. Such a versatile plant needs a complicated series of genetic instructions.

"This new resource allowed us to identify a number of other genes controlling main traits that were selected by early humans during wheat domestication and that served as foundation for developing modern wheat cultivars," said KSU's Dr. Eduard Akhunov. "These genes provide invaluable resource for empowering future breeding efforts. Wild Emmer is known as a source of novel variation that can help to improve the nutritional quality of grain as well as tolerance to diseases and water-limiting conditions."

Knowing how we got from wild emmer to wheat could teach us how to get from wheat to some other, even more efficient crop, thus providing the world with yet more food. If humanity could figure out how to keep its population from growing faster than its food supply (typically, the two have grown in sync, which is why there have always been hungry people), then perhaps this could mean an end to global hunger.

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