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Defeating Death

Posted by | January 10, 2009

The gene for death has been isolated – and reversed – by scientists. Not a bad day’s work, you might say, and a bright ray of light in this dark winter of gloomy news reports.

Sorry, it’s not the death of human beings that’s at issue. But it is a gene for death that’s embedded in a plant on which we all directly depend each day. And that’s good enough to encourage me about our prospects in these almost lightless times.

Wheat is the plant I have in mind, the king of cereal grains. It provides food for billions of us. Since the dawn of agriculture 10,000 years ago, farmers selected seeds for wheat plants that had bigger kernels that clung tightly together and could be easily harvested. For the past 100-plus years, scientific researchers have been adding to this 10,000-year history of selective breeding.

The sum of all that effort has allowed farmers to produce more and more wheat on the same amount of land, giving us more grain for bread, spaghetti and my own personal favorite, huckleberry muffins.

But wheat dies in the field each July. So, to harvest wheat the next year, farmers must prepare the soil and replant. That’s a lot of work, and it requires fuel and other inputs to accomplish.

If we could prevent wheat from dying each summer, it would grow indefinitely, like the grass in your backyard. Then we could harvest wheat without replanting. And this perennial wheat – with large and established root systems like grass – would be in our fields all year round, helping to hold our soils together through strong winds and hard rains. It’s a clear “win-win,” as the young people say.

The first step for creating perennial wheat is to change the gene that programs the plant to die each summer. Professors Steve Jones and Tim Murray of Washington State University are two scientists who have already accomplished that task. (Defeating death would make us geologists boast to the heavens, by the way, but both Murray and Jones are quiet and easy-going. Agricultural scientists are often like that.)

Death was defeated by cross-breeding wheat with one of its wild cousins.

“We’re getting good at making wheat that doesn’t die,” said Jones. “Now we’re struggling to make wheat smarter about how it continues to live.”

In WSU test plots, the newly created perennial wheat faces several challenges. One is that after harvest in August, the scientists don’t want the plant to perk up in fall rains and re-grow another head of wheat.

“We need the plant to conserve its internal resources for the next spring,” Jones said.

Ditto for getting the right genes into the wheat so that it doesn’t perk up and grow like mad in a thaw at this time of year.

“There’s a balance between turning off the genetic instructions for death and getting the right genes for living through the winter in ways that work well for us,” Jones said.

Living ain’t easy. Smart living is harder still. But you knew that.

There’s another basic challenge for perennial wheat. It’s more susceptible to viruses and certain other diseases. But the quiet ag scientists are confident about the work ahead.

“We’ll get all of those issues addressed in time,” Murray said.

Murray and Jones started work on perennially wheat about 10 years ago – a blink of an eye in the history of farming.

“But we’re making fast progress,” said Jones. “And there will be all sorts of advantages to having perennial wheat as a commercial crop where it makes sense.”

It’s not that all our wheat fields need be perennial.   Instead, it’s that there are places and conditions in which having perennial wheat as an option would be useful – even crucial for overall economics and productivity.

Science is a difficult discipline, and modern scientific research costs society a lot of money. But work like what Jones and Murray are doing has the potential to usher in a new day for farmers, conservationists and the billions of us who eat wheat each day.

Defeating death is just frosting on the cake. A cake that’s made, of course, from wheat.