Wheat: better eating through chemistry

A gene found in wild wheat may hold the key to better nutrition.

Mentioning genetic engineering often elicits shrieks of terror from traditionalists, but it may be the key to improving worldwide standards of living. We aren’t talking about creating chimeras or super-intelligent dogs; a simple manipulation of domestic wheat genes could yield huge nutritional benefits.

Agriculture has always been a mixed bag for humankind. While the benefits of growing one’s own crops are undeniable, agriculture usually results in a homogeneous diet and nutrition is often sacrificed. Anthropologists have often noted a decline in general human health associated with the rise of agriculture. Although medical and nutritional advances have offset this agricultural penalty, scientists are trying to go a little further.

Israeli and American scientists recently isolated a gene that may begin a radical change in agriculture. A newly discovered gene in wild wheat was inserted into domestic wheat and boosted protein, zinc and iron content. The increase, roughly 10 to 15 percent, could improve the lives of millions. Currently, around two billion people suffer from iron or zinc deficiencies, and millions of children fail to ingest enough protein. The implications of this discovery are staggering.

Optimistically speaking, the modified wheat could start being released within a year, and there is no reason to hesitate. The overly cautious will moan about the “unnaturalness” of such a project, but many other plants are genetically modified all the time. The wheat endeavor is additionally benign because it merely combines genes from two related plants. This is a far cry from the mixing of fish and tomato genes that has been practiced in the past.

Genetically modified crops that benefit humanity should be in vogue, but dollar bills often dictate other courses. This reality makes the modified wheat an even more triumphant story. Hopefully this will not remain a scientific rarity.

In the humanitarian business, there can never be enough help; hopefully Bono won’t mind sharing the spotlight with some scientists.