Tag Archives: wheat

Ukraine’s invasion could trigger an agricultural crisis. What can be done?

The ongoing war in Ukraine has thrown a new wrench in the well-oiled machine that is the global community. Disruptions caused by these events build upon the previous upheaval caused by the pandemic in sectors such as public health and energy security. However, a new threat now looms on the horizon: rising food prices and a serious risk of global food shortages.

Image credits Valdemar Fishmen / Flickr.

The three countries most involved in the conflict — Ukraine, Russia, and Belarus — are heavily involved in the global production of crops and fertilizers. War in this region is bound to send a sizeable shock throughout the world’s supplies and price of food.

Russia and Ukraine, combined, account for one-quarter of the world’s exports of wheat, and around half of all sunflower and sunflower products (such as cooking oil) exports. Ukraine is also a major exporter of corn. One of these countries is being invaded, while the other is being hit with international sanctions as a response; in other words, neither of them can realistically speaking put the same amount of these staple foods to market as previously.

Furthermore, Russia and Belarus together account for a large proportion of all the world’s exports of potash, a vital ingredient for agricultural fertilizers. With both of these countries embroiled in a war, hit with sanctions, and quite willing to get back at those who imposed the sanctions, we can see trouble ahead for the agricultural sector.

Empty tables?

The areas that rely heavily on Ukrainian and Russian wheat exports (mainly the Middle East and Africa) will be directly impacted by the ongoing hostilities and will be affected to the greatest extent. Analysts say that these areas should prepare to see increases in the price of everyday food items virtually across the board. Egypt, Turkey, Bangladesh, Indonesia, Pakistan, and Yemen are the single largest importers of wheat globally and stand to be the most affected.

However, most or all countries around the world should expect to see a similar increase in the price of foodstuffs due to the prices of packaging and shipping being impacted by the war, as well as due to the greater economic disruptions that the conflict has caused. The impact of the war on the fertilizer industry is especially concerning.

Talking to the BBC, Svein Tore Holsether, the CEO of Yara International (one of the world’s largest producers of agricultural fertilizers), explains that the situation is quite grim. Fertilizer prices were already high due to recent increases in the wholesale prices of natural gas, which is essential for the production of ammonia, a key component of nitrogen fertilizers. The added impact of the war in Ukraine is likely to cause a real crisis, he explains.

“Half the world’s population gets food as a result of fertilizers (…) and if that’s removed from the field for some crops, [the yield] will drop by 50%,” Mr. Holsether said. “For me, it’s not whether we are moving into a global food crisis – it’s how large the crisis will be.”

“We’re getting close to the most important part of this season for the Northern hemisphere, where a lot of fertiliser needs to move on and that will quite likely be impacted.”

The Norwegian-based company explains that it is not directly affected by sanctions leveled at Russia, but that does not mean it is immune to them, either. These measures have caused immense disruptions in the shipping industry which affects every level of the economy, so shipments are very hard to secure. The Russian government has also advised domestic producers of fertilizer and fertilizer-associated materials not to export their products as a retaliatory measure against the sanctions imposed on them.

Furthermore, Yara is having trouble setting up alternative sources of raw materials for its fertilizers on short enough notice for the upcoming spring. Apart from natural gas, the West also relies heavily on Russian and Bielorussian potash and phosphate.

“We’re doing whatever we can do at the moment to also find additional sources. But with such short timelines it’s limited,” Mr. Holsether added.

Shortages of fertilizer could translate to higher operating costs for farmers together with lower yields — leading to food insecurity and significant rises in the cost of staple grains and a wider pallet of goods.

Agriculture under pressure

Climate change and freak weather are already placing farms under increased stress, as is the growing number of people on the planet. This is not a good background against which to have food shortages — and if there’s anything we’ve learned in the past couple of years, it’s that our globalized world isn’t immune to shortages.

Still, where globalized supply chains stand to be heavily impacted by the current war, they also hold some promise to address the situation. Romania, an EU member state and neighbor of Ukraine, is also a strong exporter of grain and traditionally considered part of Europe’s breadbasket. Romanian Agriculture Minister Adrian Chesnoiu recently told reporters that the country is expecting no trouble covering its internal demand for wheat and even has a sizeable surplus for export that can be used to partially compensate for the expected shortage. This excess production can help cover some of the demand and ease the blow of the Ukrainian war on food markets.

“Traditionally we are an exporting country because we produce more than we consume,” FiancialPost quotes Chesnoiu as saying. “On a good year, Romania produces over 11 million tons of wheat while domestic consumption is somewhere around 4.3 million, that’s why I said Romania is not in the situation of the other states which are trying to ensure their internal consumption.”

“From the assessments we have made at the ministry so far there is no risk that the population cannot be supplied.”

Nearby Poland is in a similar spot, as a traditional exporter of wheat. Apart from Russia and Ukraine, the United States, Canada, France, and Australia are also important net exporters of wheat.

The real crux of the issue is how agricultural production will fare in the case of a wide-scale shortage of fertilizers. Industrial fertilizers are produced using potassium salts mined from deposits deep underground, and they have precious few alternatives — and virtually none of them can take over in such a short amount of time.

A silver lining of this crisis is that it may very well force us towards new and more sustainable sources of fertilizer for our crops. Compost is an age-old option, which has the potential to be used on an industrial scale, as is manure. Other more exotic options include insect-sourced fertilizer, mixing different types of crops that can support the development of each other, or developing the extraction of potassium from fresh sources. Biochar could also have a part to play in fattening our crops.

Still, implementing new approaches, especially on an industrial scale, takes time, and spring is upon us. Hopefully, the world will have time to adapt, or this war ends and things go back to normal before our grain supplies really start to dwindle. Because nobody wants to go hungry.

Wheat crop.

The world’s farms are dominated by only four crops

Crop fields around the world are becoming increasingly uniform, and that’s a problem.

Wheat crop.

Image via Pixabay.

The world as a whole is increasingly narrowing agricultural production to only a few crops and lineages according to new research from the University of Toronto (UoT). This not only impacts the contents of our plates, but also makes global food production less resilient against pests and disease.

More of the same

“What we’re seeing is large monocultures of crops that are commercially valuable being grown in greater numbers around the world,” says lead researcher Adam Martin, assistant professor of  ecologist in the Department of Physical and Environmental Sciences at UoT Scarborough.

“So large industrial farms are often growing one crop species, which are usually just a single genotype, across thousands of hectares of land.”

The team worked from data recorded by the U.N.’s Food and Agricultural Organization (FAO), quantifying which crops were grown on large-scale industrial farms globally from 1961 to 2014. While crop diversity in each region has increased — North America, for example, now grows 93 different crops, whereas the 1960s it was only 80 crops — it has gone down on a global scale. Large scale, industrialized farms in Asia or Europe, for example, are looking more and more like those in North or South America.

Soybeans, wheat, rice, and corn occupy just under 50% of the planet’s agricultural lands, the team reports. The rest is divided among 152 different crops. There is also very little genetic diversity within individual crops. In North America, six individual genotypes comprise about 50% of all corn crops, the team explains.

The 1980s saw a massive peak in global crop diversity as different types of plants were being sowed in new places on an industrial scale. This peak had largely flattened by the 1990s, and crop diversity across regions have declined ever since.

So, why is this a problem? Several reasons. The first is that it affects global food sovereignty, the team explains.

“If regional crop diversity is threatened, it really cuts into people’s ability to eat or afford food that is culturally significant to them,” says Martin.

Secondly, it’s also an ecological issue. If farms are dominated by a few lineages of crops, that makes the global food supply extremely susceptible to pests or diseases. All bananas (that we cultivate) today, for example, are clones —  they’re all genetically identical. And they’re being wiped out by the Panama disease, a fungicide-resistant fungus.

Martin hopes to expand his research to look at patterns of crop diversity in the context of individual nations. He says there’s a policy angle to consider, since government decisions that favour growing certain kinds of crops may contribute to a lack of diversity.

“It will be important to look at what governments are doing to promote more different types of crops being grown, or at a policy-level, are they favouring farms to grow certain types of cash crops,” he says.

The paper “Regional and global shifts in crop diversity through the Anthropocene” has been published in the journal PLOS ONE.

Professor Harbans Bariana. Credit: University of Sydney.

Scientists harvest wild genes to give food crops an edge against diseases

Professor Harbans Bariana. Credit: University of Sydney.

Professor Harbans Bariana. Credit: University of Sydney.

Modern food crops have undergone substantial changes with respect to their wild counterparts, be they through traditional breeding techniques or gene editing. This is to optimize the crops’ agronomic traits, such as yield, but in doing so farmers are now growing plants with less genetic diversity — and this makes them very vulnerable to diseases. Seeking to address this gap, an international team of researchers has developed a revolutionary new technique that quickly and cheaply identifies genes associated with disease-fighting capabilities in wild crops. Ultimately, these genes could be added to the genomes of modern cousins in order to boost their resilience.

The technique called AgRenSeq combines high-throughput DNA sequencing and bioinformatics to create a functional library of disease resistant genes in wild crops. Using an algorithm that the team developed, researchers can perform a quick scan for relevant genes.

“We have found a way to scan the genome of a wild relative of a crop plant and pick out the resistance genes we need: and we can do it in record time. This used to be a process that took 10 or 15 years and was like searching for a needle in a haystack,” Dr. Brande Wulff, a crop genetics project leader at the John Innes Centre and a lead author of the study, said in a statement.

Once the genes are identified, researchers move to the lab where they can clone the genes and introduce them into various domestic crops. In a demonstration, the researchers led by Harbans Bariana, an expert in cereal rust genetics from the Sydney Institute of Agriculture, identified and then cloned four wild wheat genes that offer protection against stem rust pathogens. This all took a couple of months and cost only thousands of dollars instead of taking decades and millions of dollars. The same method could be used for soybeans, peas, cotton, maize, potatoes, barley, cocoa, and just about any food crop.

“What we have now is a library of disease resistance genes and we have developed an algorithm that enables researchers to quickly scan that library and find functional resistance genes,” said Dr Sanu Arora, the first author of the paper from the John Innes Centre.

Dr Wulff said: “This is the culmination of a dream, the result of many year’s work. Our results demonstrate that AgRenSeq is a robust protocol for rapidly discovering resistance genes from a genetically diverse panel of a wild crop relative,” he said.

“If we have an epidemic, we can go to our library and inoculate that pathogen across our diversity panel and pick out the resistance genes. Using speed cloning and speed breeding we could deliver resistance genes into elite varieties within a couple of years, like a phoenix rising from the ashes.”

The findings appeared in the journal Nature Biotechnology

Baked cake.

What is gluten intolerance, and what are its symptoms?

Gluten is a protein naturally found in cereals such as wheat, barley, and rye. Harmless for most of us, gluten can cause quite a lot of headache (and bellyaches, among other things) for certain people. Today, we’ll take a look at the different kinds of gluten intolerance and the symptoms they can cause.

Baked cake.

Gluten makes dough elastic, knead-able, and bouncy. You can see how it works in this cake, keeping those stringy bits in the middle from breaking.
Image credits Andreas Lischka.

Wheat (genus Triticum) makes the world go round. Not literally, but it does play a big role in keeping us humans fueled up. It was one of the first domesticated food crops, and for roughly 8 millennia now, wheat has been the staple food of major civilizations in Europe, North Africa, and West Asia. More land area is dedicated to growing wheat than any other commercial crop on Earth, and global production of wheat outstrips that of any other crop — including rice, maize, and potatoes.

Barley (Hordeum vulgare) is another long-time companion of human farmers. First cultivated around 10,000 years ago, it was the fourth most-produced grain in the world in 2016, although output has somewhat declined since then. Barley is very useful as an animal feed but is perhaps most celebrated for its role in beer and distilled beverage production.

Both of these cereals, along with rye, their related species, and various hybrids, are part of the grass (Poacea) family of plants. Altogether, they supply a huge part of the calories and nutrients consumed by us and our livestock. They also supply the majority of raw materials used in producing alcohol.

Apart from their economic importance, these crops are also notable for their high content of gluten and gluten-like proteins. This is a bit of a bummer for around 1.5% to 14% of the world’s population, who have to contend with various forms of gluten intolerance.

What is gluten intolerance

Gluten intolerance is a somewhat-umbrella term that refers to adverse reactions to gluten. I say ‘somewhat-umbrella’ because it tends to be improperly applied to several conditions that — while similar in effects — are different in origin. These include celiac disease (CD), non-celiac gluten sensitivity (NCGS), wheat allergy, dermatitis herpetiformis, and (more rarely) gluten ataxia.

The most extreme form of gluten intolerance is celiac disease (also known as gluten-sensitive enteropathy, sprue, or coeliac). Roughly 1 in 100 Americans contend with CD, and this percentage seems to hold true for the rest of the world as well. CD is basically an autoimmune disorder. The body of a CD patient reacts with extreme violence to the presence of gluten in one’s food — to the point where their immune system will attack the inner lining of the small intestine to ‘protect it’ from gluten. Such offensives cause immediate symptoms for the patient. If exposure to gluten is maintained over a longer period of time, sustained damage to the gut’s lining leads to problems in absorbing nutrients (malabsorption).

Celiac disease gut lining.

High-magnification image of intestinal lining damaged by celiac disease.
Image credits Nephron / Wikimedia.

Non-celiac gluten sensitivity is more controversial. We don’t know, really, what causes this condition (or if it’s even an actual thing). Our best guess is that it has something to do with gluten-associated proteins and/or other chemical compounds present in gluten-containing crops. Since we don’t know what causes it and how, NCGS is generally diagnosed by eliminating other possibilities (namely CD and wheat allergies). Roughly 0.5% to 13% of the world’s population has NCGS. While its exact symptoms are debated, NCGS seems to share most gastrointestinal symptoms of CD, wheat allergies, and irritable bowel syndrome, but with a different interval between exposure and onset of symptoms. NCGS also seems to entail a host of extraintestinal (not related to the gut) symptoms that CD lacks.

Wheat allergy is your run-of-the-mill allergy, but rather misleadingly-named. Like other allergies, it can manifest as a food- or contact-allergy. Unlike other allergies, it can be caused by a range of compounds (rather than a particular allergen) contained in wheat. The European Center for Allergy Research Foundation (ECARF) states that “wheat allergy generally appears in infancy,” noting that roughly 0.3% of European children under the age of 5 and around 0.1% of all Europeans are allergic to wheat, making it a relatively rare condition.

Dermatitis herpetiformis (DH), or Duhring-Brocq disease, is a tell-tale sign of celiac disease, although the exact mechanism by which one causes the other remains unknown. The condition is a skin inflammation characterized by chronic rashes on the skin with red, liquid-filled blisters. They’re also very itchy. Estimates of DH prevalence range from 10 in 100,000 to around 80 in 10,000 individuals.

Gluten ataxia is a proposed condition. It’s basically gluten-induced ataxia, a condition characterized by dysfunctions in the central nervous system leading to loss of voluntary control or coordination over muscle movements. Gluten ataxia “usually presents with gait and lower limb ataxia” and may account for “15% amongst all [cases of] ataxias and 40% of all idiopathic sporadic ataxias,” according to a study published in 2015.

It’s important to note that there are several varieties of gluten intolerance going forward. Each has its own particularities of symptoms. However, there are some general symptoms that are indicative of such disorders.

Symptoms of gluten intolerance

Abdominal pain.

Most of them have to do with your belly. But not all of them.
Image credits Darko Djurin.

Abdominal pain after ingesting gluten — from grains and derived products such as flours, bread, baked goods, or beer — is the most common symptom of gluten intolerance at large. Up to 83% of those with gluten intolerance experience abdominal pain and discomfort after eating gluten.

Abdominal bloating is a close second. It’s a sensation of ‘swollenness’ or ‘fullness’ in one’s belly, caused by the release of gases in the gut. Generally uncomfortable, abdominal bloating can become painful and/or cause shortness of breath. Around 87% of people suspected to have NCGS experience bloating, but a majority of CD patients also report this symptom.

Bowel inflammation after consuming gluten is a common symptom of celiac disease. Damage of the gut lining causes inflammation resulting in significant digestive discomfort. In the long run, it can also lead to poor nutrient absorption.

Over 50% of gluten-sensitive individuals (both CD and NCGS) regularly experience digestive symptoms such as diarrhea, while about 25% experience constipation. Patients also report alternating between the two states. Celiac disease patients may also experience pale and foul-smelling feces (due to nutrients left over in the stool).

Tiredness after consuming gluten can also be a symptom. This is a bit trickier to diagnose, as life by itself tends to be quite tiresome. However, if you regularly (or constantly) feel fatigue and tiredness, especially after eating foods that contain gluten, it could be indicative of underlying gluten intolerance. Around 60% to 82% of gluten-intolerant individuals commonly experience tiredness and fatigue. Gluten intolerance can also cause iron-deficiency anemia, which in turn will make you feel tired and spent overall.

Dermatitis herpetiformis, as we’ve seen above, is a pretty dead giveaway for celiac disease. Other skin conditions — psoriasis, alopecia areata, and chronic urticaria — have also shown improvement under gluten-free diets, which suggests a link between them and gluten intolerance.

Gluten intolerance may also predispose individuals to depression and anxiety, especially those suffering from CD. While the mechanism underlying this link remains unknown, it has been proposed that changes in gut flora and exorphins formed during gluten digestion may interfere with serotonin levels in the brain. It also seems that switching to a gluten-free diet makes some patients “feel better” even if their gastrointestinal symptoms persist; all of which suggests a link between the two.

What to do about it

Brad and grains.

TL;DR don’t put these things in your mouth.
Image credits National Cancer Institute / National Institutes of Health.

The best course of action is to go talk to a doctor. But there are some preventive measures you can take if you think you’re suffering from gluten intolerance.

Unsurprisingly, you should avoid items that contain gluten — wheat, barley, malt, rye, and their derived products (brewer’s yeast can also contain gluten, for example). Some common foods and drinks that contain gluten include:

  • pasta, noodles
  • bread, pastries, baked goods such as crackers, biscuits, and cakes
  • breakfast cereals
  • pancakes, waffles, crepes
  • many sauces and gravies use flour-derived gluten as thickening agents
  • beers, malt beverages
  • potatoes, maize, and rice can also become contaminated with gluten in facilities that also process gluten-rich grains

Gluten-free varieties of such items are commercially available, although they tend to be more pricey. So it’s possible to enjoy them without worrying about gluten. But, as a rule of thumb, if you suspect a food item contains or has been in contact with wheat, barley, rye, malt, or products derived from those (and you believe you might be suffering from gluten intolerance), don’t eat it.

Now, I think it’s important to note that there’s also somewhat of a witch hunt among fad diets regarding gluten. Many such diets suggest gluten itself is bad for your health even if you’re not gluten-intolerant. There’s no credible scientific evidence for such claims that I could find, so I’m comfortable calling it a myth. Another part of the issue is that the symptoms of gluten intolerance are widespread and can have a lot of different potential causes — which makes gluten intolerance easy to misdiagnose.

All in all, if you believe you might be suffering from gluten intolerance, the best course of action is to go talk to a doctor.

On oats

In response to numerous queries concerning the use of oats in various products, the North American Society for the Study of Celiac Disease (NASSCD) released a statement saying that “the use of oats uncontaminated by wheat, barley or rye by individuals with celiac disease and dermatitis herpetiformis in North America has been endorsed by most experts.” However, they also note that “regular (commodity) oats in North America are likely to be contaminated with wheat and barley,” and recommend consulting a doctor or dietitian before including oats in gluten-free diets, as well as monitoring after inclusion.

There is some evidence that avenin, an oat protein similar in form and function to gluten, “can activate gluten-reactive T cells”, the Celiac Disease Foundation reports citing a 2015 study. A different study, published in 2017, reported that avenin “can cause small bowel mucosal damage in some people with coeliac disease.” While the first paper concludes that “low-level oats consumption may be insufficient for clinical relapse in CD patients,” the second one does not recommend including this cereal in gluten-free diets.

It has to be noted, however, that the second study was performed in Australia, and differences in labeling requirements may confuse results to an extent. The NASSCD, for example, specifies that “oats used in labeled gluten-free foods may now include mechanically/optically-sorted oats, a process which separates oats from wheat, barley and rye by color, size, and shape. These methods are used to produce “clean” gluten-free oats.” The first study also suggests that certain types of oats may induce CD symptoms in patients while others do not.

“Inclusion of oats in a gluten-free diet might be valuable due to their nutritional and health benefits, and several countries currently permit oats to be included as an ingredient in such diets,” it explains.

“However, it is extremely important to remember that in vitro studies have shown that the immunogenicity of oats varies depending on the cultivar used. Future clinical studies should be directed to the development of clinical trials with varieties previously identified as safe by reliable in vitro methods”

If you’re intolerant to gluten, play it safe. Look for the “gluten-free” label, or talk to a doctor to decide if oats are right for you.

Wheat.

U.S. researchers poised to level-up wheat’s nutritive value by making it absorb minerals

The USDA Agricultural Research Service wants to level up wheat, making it more nutritious.

Wheat.

Image credits MaxPixel.

Getting a proper meal today might seem as easy as popping into the nearest diner, but appearances can be deceiving. Our diets, while gaining in calories, are also steadily losing in the nutrient department — for example, about 60% of the world’s population doesn’t get enough iron in their diet, says Robert Graybosch of the Agricultural Research Service.

However, a new paper that he and his team published aims to solve this problem by packing wheat with more nutrients, especially minerals, through biofortification.

Nutrient Keep

“People in many parts of the world do not consume a balanced diet and their main foods lack minerals,” Graybosch says. “This can be addressed by fortification, the process of adding minerals back to food products.”

“This is done with flours used for bread baking.”

While fortification is a process that takes place after the crops are harvested, biofortification begins even before the seeds are sowed. Fortification involves boosting the nutritional value of a food item, such as dough, through the addition of minerals such as iron as the food item is being processed. Biofortification involves naturally increasing a crop’s nutritional value by making it draw more iron from the soil in the first place.

That being said, Graybosch states that people are hesitant to eat products that contain ‘weird’ ingredients added during processing. And, if the GMO debacle has taught us anything, people are similarly put off by ‘engineered’ crops. While we may debate at length about the merits of eating organic (it’s just bragging rights), Graybosch’s team decided they’d steer well clear of the controversy and instead work to make flours naturally contain more minerals.

“Biofortification can be done via traditional plant breeding using natural genetic variation or natural mutations, or via genetic engineering,” he says.

“If one found a mutation that resulted in more grain iron, and then bred this trait into wheat that was produced and consumed, then we could say the crop has been biofortified.”

The team developed several experimental breeding lines of winter wheat (Triticum aestivum) by mixing several currently-available wheat types. A breeding line is the first step in creating a new type of an already-existing crop. Their goal was to combine two properties — a high level of protein and low phytate levels — into the grains. Phytate (phytic acid) is an antinutrient that prevents the body from absorbing certain minerals.

USDA-ARS.

USDA-ARS student interns Alison Coomer and Marco Gutierrez examine wheat plants in the greenhouse at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln East Campus.
Image credits Robert Garybosch.

While biofortification can be a powerful tool, it can easily backfire. It’s not unusual to see a more nutritiously-dense crop drop in yield, which would hurt farmer’s profits and lead to an overall lower net nutrition level.

However, the team showed that they could successfully combine the two traits in a new strain of wheat without negatively impacting its yield. Such a plant, they report, would boast increased amounts of zinc, calcium, and manganese. The team was able to identify which combination of genes is required to create it. However, more work needs to be done before this biofortified wheat is ready to be planted by farmers: they still need to breed these genes into plants adapted for different wheat-growing areas, such as the Great Plains of the U.S.

All that’s left to do now is to breed these genes into plants adapted for different wheat-growing areas, such as the Great Plains of the U.S.

“It is important to note that all wheat grown in a specific area is adapted to that area,” Graybosch explains. “Great Plains wheats do well in the Great Plains, but not elsewhere. If the trait is of interest in other locations, additional breeders need to start introducing it to their own backgrounds. And they are interested in doing so.”

“I think anything that can improve food mineral nutrition at low or no cost to the consumer is of value,” he adds. “Anything we can do to improve nutrition worldwide will go a long way toward improving the lives of our fellow earthlings.”

The paper “Biofortification of Hard Red Winter Wheat by Genes Conditioning Low Phytate and High Grain Protein Concentration” has been published in the journal Crop Science.

Wheat.

Wheat’s genetic secrets could lead to better, more resilient crops

Wheat has a genome five times longer than yours — and now, it’s been fully sequenced.

Wheat.

Image credits Brad Higham / Flickr.

Staying true to their name, researchers at the International Wheat Genome Sequencing Consortium have published a paper containing the complete sequence of the wheat (genus Triticum) genome, a dataset that could help breed new crops.

Food-nome

Having access to the plant’s genome should help speed up the breeding of more resilient, disease-resistant, and higher-yield crops. Wheat is currently the most widely grown crop, providing more protein than meat in the human diet, and supplying roughly one-fifth of the total calories people consume. It’s also surprisingly complex from a genetic standpoint: its genome includes some 16 million base pairs, over five times larger than yours or mine.

Despite its genetic beefiness, wheat is quite vulnerable to floods, droughts, and several diseases (such as wheat rust) that can claim whole crops at a time. Luckily, now that we know the structure of its genome, we can modify it to add a whole lot of desirable characteristics — resilience to pests, higher yields, more nutritional value — into our crops.

Actually sequencing the genome, however, proved to be a significant challenge. Not only was it huge, it also included three sub-genomes — a large part of which included repetitive elements. This makes long stretches of the genome identical or very similar to each other, making it difficult to distinguish individual chains and re-constructing the overall genome.

The sequencing effort is detailed in two papers. The first, published by researchers from the. International Wheat Genome Sequencing Consortium, details the sequence of the plant’s 21 chromosomes. It also lists the location of 107,891 genes, more than 4 million molecular markers, as well as sequence elements between the genes that regulate their expression.

The second paper, led by a team at the John Innes Centre (JIC), aims to help breeders and researchers understand what trait each gene affects. This work is largely based on a technique known as ‘speed breeding’, previously developed at the JIC. Speed breeding involves the use of glasshouses to shorten the breedings cycles of plants. Combined with the wealth of genome information from the first paper, this helped the team significantly shorten the time required to test what each gene does.

“Genomic knowledge of other crops has driven progress in selecting and breeding important traits,” says Cristobal Uauy, Project Leader in crop genetics at the John Innes Centre says.

“Tackling the colossal wheat genome has been a Herculean challenge, but completing this work means we can identify genes controlling traits of interest more rapidly. This will facilitate and make more effective the breeding for traits like drought or disease resistance. Where previously we had a broad view and could spot areas of interest, we can now zoom into the detail on the map.”

Uauy cites past research estimating that the world will need 60% more wheat by 2050 to meet global demand. The research his team performed can be instrumental towards reaching that goal.

It’s not the first time researchers have fully decoded the genome of a cereal: just last year, an international research team published the full genome of barley.

The first paper, “Shifting the limits in wheat research and breeding using a fully annotated reference genome”, has been published in the journal Science.

The second paper “The transcriptional landscape of polyploid wheat” has been published in the journal Science.

Credit: University of Queensland.

Speed breeding LED technique grows food six times faster than conventional farming

Lee Hickey, a researcher at the University of Queensland, in a wheat field grown with speed breeding. Credit: University of Queensland.

Lee Hickey, a researcher at the University of Queensland. Credit: University of Queensland.

Australian researchers have demonstrated a ‘speed breeding’ technique for common crops. Their method yields far more food per unit area than conventional farming, relying on specially calibrated LEDs that emit light at specific frequencies onto crops to accelerate plant growth.

Using this setup, researchers showed that they could grow six generations of wheat, chickpea, and barley, as well as four generations of canola plants, in a single year. Typically, farmers in the field only grow one generation of each crop. The yields are strikingly high even when compared to crops grown in a lamp glasshouse environment, which produced two to three generations.

Credit: University of Queensland.

Credit: University of Queensland.

The fast and nutritious

This means that for the same unit area, it’s possible to grow six times more food than in the open field and up to three times more food than typical glasshouses, the authors reported in the journal Nature Plants — and this could prove extremely important.

By 2050, the number of people on Earth is expected to soar to ten billion. At the same time, there’s an increasing demand for protein-rich foods, i.e. meat, spurred by an improved standard of living in developing countries. The problem is that the amount of arable land at our disposal will only marginally increase, which can only mean yield needs to improve if we want to satisfy the food requirements of the world.

Genetically modified crops that are more resistant to pests and yield more nutrients per unit area are one part of the solution. Artificially developed food like lab-grown burgers may also play a role. But the truth is we need all the help we can get, and speed breeding looks very enticing at the moment.

Speed breeding was initially explored by NASA over a decade ago as a means to enhance food production during space missions where efficiency is critical and every square inch counts. Scientists at the University of Sydney, the University of Queensland, and the John Innes Centre, continued the project, picking up from where NASA left off.

Their setup involves specially-tuned LEDs that emit light in the far-red spectrum and at a high intensity to accelerate photosynthesis in intensive regimes of up to 22 hours per day.

“In the glasshouse, we currently use high-pressure sodium vapor lamps and these are quite expensive in terms of the electricity demand,” said Lee Hickey, a researcher at the University of Queensland and study co-author. “In our paper, we demonstrate that wheat and barley populations can be grown at a density of about 900 plants per square meter, thus in combination with LED light systems, this presents an exciting opportunity to scale up the operation for industry use.”

The yields are certainly impressive but what was really surprising, even for the researchers themselves, was the quality of the crops. Raising plants this fast typically comes with significant downsides, leading to frail looking plants. However, the Australian researchers grew crops that not only yield more but also look better and healthier than those grown in standard conditions.

“People said you may be able to cycle plants fast, but they will look tiny and insignificant, and only set a few seed. In fact, the new technology creates plants that look better and are healthier than those using standard conditions. One colleague could not believe it when he first saw the results,” explained in a statement Dr Brande Wulff of the John Innes Centre, Norwich, a lead author on the paper.

Lead author Dr Brande Wulff from the John Innes Centre marveling at his creations. Credit: University of Queensland.

Lead author Dr Brande Wulff from the John Innes Centre marveling at his creations. Credit: University of Queensland.

Right now, there is no genetically modified (GM) wheat grown commercially so speed breeding could provide a promising alternative. What’s more, the authors acknowledge that speed breeding can be combined with GM crops to obtain even more outstanding results. Already, wheat breeders have lined up to gain access to this technology — companies such as Dow AgroSciences which is using speed breeding to grow wheat with tolerance to pre-harvest sprouting (PHS), a major problem in Australia.

Lotus seeds.

German researchers release open-source tomato and wheat seeds to boost research

Breeders from the Göttingen University and Dottenfelderhof agricultural school in Bad Vilbel, Germany, have released new varieties of tomato and wheat seeds. The catch? They’re free for anyone to use, ever, as long as the products of their work remain free to use. In essence, these are open-source seeds.

Lotus seeds.

Image credits Nam Nguyen.

I think we’ve all, at one point or another, had to bump heads with the sprawling world of intelectual property and copyright licensing. That being said, I don’t think many of us imagined that licensing is a problem farmers and plant breeders also have to face — but they do. Feeling that this practice has gone beyond doing good and is actually stifling progress (both scientifically and morally in areas where food insecurity is still high,) German scientists have created new varieties of tomato and wheat plants, whose seeds are now freely available for use under an open-source license.

The move follows similar initiatives to share plant material in India and the United States, but it’s the first to actually extend the legal framework to all future descendants of the varieties.

So why would you make seeds open source? Well, the idea is that scientists and breeders can experiment with these seeds to improve the varieties or create new ones altogether without having to worry about the legal department suing them back into the stone age. And in that respect, it’s a gift that keeps on giving. According to Johannes Kotschi, an agricultural scientist who helped write the license last year, the license “says that you can use the seed in multiple ways but you are not allowed to put a plant variety protection or patent on this seed and all the successive developments of this seed.” Kotschi manages OpenSourceSeeds for the nonprofit Agrecol in Marburg, Germany, which announced the tomato and wheat licensing in Berlin back in April.

The open source seeds have had a very positive reception. Since their announcement, other universities, nonprofits, as well as organic breeders have expressed an interest in releasing open-source licenses for their hop, potato, and tomato varieties, and Kotschi’s tomato seeds have been in great demand.

Why open-source

For the majority of human history, seeds have, obviously, been open-source. Without any system in place to enforce copyright claim or to penalize copyright infringements in place, farmers could use and improve on any variety of plant to suit his needs. This freedom allowed for the crops we know today — those with ample yields, drought- and pest-resistance, better taste and growing times, so on. Or they just got lucky.

But in the 1930s the United States began applying patent law to plants and soon everyone was doing it — so farmers and breeders couldn’t claim a variety as their own, and even risked legal action for working with a claimed crop. The problem further deepened as a sleuth of additional measures including patents and a special intellectual property system for crops called “plant variety protection” made it into legislature. As companies merge, these patents and plant intellectual property become increasingly concentrated to an ever-smaller number of legal entities.

Some progress was done on plant variety protection, with international agreements allowing an exception from the intellectual property for research and breeding. But there’s no such system in place for patents, and scientists aren’t allowed to use patented plants for breeding or research purposes.

The Geman open-source seeds solve these problems by allowing anyone to use the varieties as long as any derivatives (offspring) remain in the common, public domain. However, there is some concern that a complete shift to an open-source system would harm innovation, as commercial breeders (who are the main source of new varieties) and universities wouldn’t be able to cash in royalties off their work. As with most areas of life, balance is key to solving the issue.

For now, governments will likely keep an eye on how the seeds impact existing systems.

Wheat.

What is gluten and why some people have gluten intolerance

“Gluten” is an umbrella term used to denote the mix of storage protein compounds found in all species and hybrids of wheat and its related grains (barley, rye, etc). Not a single substance but rather a mixture of various kinds of protein, gluten is, simply put, the way these cereals store building materials for the future.

Wheat.

*gluten intensifies*
Image credits Hans Braxmeier.

Owing to proteins’ tendency to bunch up or string together, gluten lends elasticity and texture to baked goods, making them either chewy or crunchy — “gluten” is actually the Latin word for “glue”. It’s also the object of many a fad diet and legitimate dietary concerns (primarily in the shape of allergies or intolerances), and a cool compound to use in making DIY playdough.

What is gluten made of

So right off the bat, gluten doesn’t have a set chemical structure. Its composition varies depending on the species in question and the exact percentages very likely differ from individual to individual. But in a general sense, gluten is a mixture of prolamins and glutelins.

Prolamins are a family of storage proteins used to stockpile (mainly) proline and glutamine, two amino acids which underpin protein synthesis for plants. Each crop produces and stores a different brand of prolamin — gliadin in wheat, hordein for barley, secalin in rye, zein in corn, kafirin in sorghum, and avenin (minor protein) in oats. Glutelins do basically the same thing as prolamins in chemically-different combinations and shapes. They’re rich in amino acids, particularly glutenin (wheat), though to a lesser overall degree than prolamins.

Proline&Glutamine.

The two amino acids gluten mainly stores.

All plants use protein stores of one kind or another, mostly concentrated in fruits in the case of endosperms, earmarked to supply budding plants during germination. The term gluten is sometimes extended to these stores as well (especially for corn or rice as they’re also cereals) but true gluten (with prolamins and glutelins) is only found in wheat, its related grains, and their species and hybrids. Some other gluten-free grains you’re likely to bump or bite into are quinoa, amaranth, and oats — although this last one is usually not recommended by dietitians, as it’s usually processed through the same channels as wheat-related grains, which can contaminate it with gluten.

Why gluten is good

Proline is considered to be a non-essential amino acid in the human body (the need can be covered by internal synthesis), while glutamine plays a non-essential/conditionally essential role (it is usually supplied by the body’s own synthesis processes, but must be supplemented by diet in certain stressful conditions). Glutamine has the distinction of being the most abundant free amino acid in the bloodstream.

So while they do have nutritional value, for the most part, our bodies don’t really need these amino acids. But gluten plays a central part in how we process and then consume grains. It accounts for the lion’s share of proteins in bread — anywhere between 75 to 80% — so to understand what it does, let’s take a quick look at how these behave.

Bread.

Those stretch-like marks are made by gluten holding the dough together during yeast fermentation.
Image credits Lebensmittelfotos.

Proteins are essentially long chains of amino acids strewn together and folded into certain shapes. They do all sorts of stuff in living bodies, such as pumping compounds in and out of cells or moving things around. But the thing we’re interested in right now is that they are also the go-to compounds when mechanical resilience and stiffness are required. Your nails are so hard compared to your skin because they’re rich in keratin. Your nose never breaks because elastin strands hold the cartilage together, just like the iron rods do in reinforced concrete. Cells keep their shape because tiny filaments of protein run from wall to wall and prop them up.

And that’s what gluten does in pretty much any foodstuff made from flour. By kneading it with water, bakers “weave” gluten into long elastic strands which act similarly to those of a polymer. These strands are made up of glutenin molecules which criss-cross into a microscopic net-like pattern along with gliadin (wheat glutenin) molecules, making the dough hold together, feel a bit rubbery, and stretchable. Heat treatment such as baking or boiling breaks the folding in gluten and makes it coagulate, which, along with starch, gives bread its mechanical properties. Gluten has also been identified as playing a part in the staling of bread, likely by binding atmospheric water molecules.

To get an idea of the physical properties of gluten and how it ties food together, you can play around with a lump of pure gluten. It’s quite fun — keep your hands clean and (most of) you can eat it afterward, too. If you don’t have any lying around, tofu is a similar product (soy/plant proteins but with a higher % of fat mixed in) which is more widely available.

What is gluten intolerance

Now, my reaction to hearing about a new fad diet is a wide smile and a knowing, paternal chuckle. And a big part of the demand for gluten-free products comes down to just that — a fad. To each his own (wallet) but, considering a number of foodstuffs that have gluten and their nutritional value, going gluten-free without any medical reason isn’t the best of ideas as it could end up making your diet way worse overall.

At least some people have a sense of humor about it.
Image credits William Murphy / Flickr.

That being said, some people who are gluten-sensitive or gluten-intolerant can’t eat gluten. There are several gluten-related disorders: celiac disease (CD) is the most common form of intolerance, then there’s the still-debated-on non-celiac gluten sensitivity (NCGS), and a slew of other nasty reactions from dermatitis herpetiformis and irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) to gluten ataxia and wheat allergy. People suffering from CD see their bodies produce an abnormal immune response when digesting gluten, making their digestive tract unable to absorb nutrients. About 18 million Americans have gluten sensitivity, according to the National Foundation for Celiac Awareness. Those with NCGS exhibit many of the same symptoms, due to poor digestion or a placebo effect, still under debate. So why does this happen?

The first thing you have to keep in mind is that while humans are omnivores, our bodies just aren’t geared to eating absolutely everything out there — but we’re very good at adapting. Certain populations overcome diet limitations over time through contact with traditional types of food.

For example, Western society as a whole is much less lactose intolerant than the rest of, well, mammals, since in nature milk is reliably on the menu only before weaning — after that, it’s highly unlikely to pop up, so mammalian bodies don’t maintain a stock of lactase because it doesn’t make economic sense for them to do so. But most westerners today have acquired lactose resistance through (relatively few) generations of natural selection for the ability to eat dairy, as milk was an important source of nutrients here. Writing in the New York time on this subject, Moises Velasquez-Manoff said:

“Few Scandinavian hunter-gatherers living 5,400 years ago had lactase persistence genes, for example. Today, most Scandinavians do.”

The “we’re not yet adapted to it” approach has a lot of support, and there may be some limited validity to that point of view in certain cases. We know of grain consumption even before agriculture, albeit on a reduced scale. It’s also likely that those cereals were poorer in gluten or might not have employed it all together (such as is the case with wild oats), meaning there was no reason to adapt to eating a lot of grains by that time. There is evidence tying CD to genetic factors. However, I’d say that adaptation similar to the one above led to a greater digestibility of gluten and likely worked up a natural tolerance for the majority of humans — else people wouldn’t have eaten it for like 23,000 years.

One other factor cited to play a hand in gluten intolerance is that selective breeding of wheat and related crops up to modern times led to increasing levels of ATIs (-α-amylase/trypsin inhibitors), which the plants use to fight off insects but also interfere with the digestive tract’s processing of gluten, and our bodies are still catching up to that. But research doesn’t point to any increase in ATIs.

One final factor may be more modern — after the transition to agriculture, the genes which cause autoimmune disorders may have provided an evolutionary advantage by keeping people extra-safe in the crowded, pathogen-rich environments of early settlements. And we’re seeing an overall increase in autoimmune disorders of every kind recently as more of the slack is taken away from our immune systems by drugs, making it liable to react out of proportion to perceived threats.

The bottom line is that we don’t really know where gluten intolerance stems from yet.

As for the other disorders, their causes vary quite a lot and may not even be understood or still debated in some cases. If you think you may have a form of gluten sensibility, speaking to a physician is your best way of getting more information.

Cool stuff gluten can do for you

You can still have some fun with gluten, even if you can’t eat it. Candia on Instructables has a nice guide set up so you can make some at home. The cream of tartar will make the dough more elastic, but even if you take it our of the mix the gluten is strong enough to keep the play-dough in one piece no matter how you stretch it. It’s basically dough so you don’t have to worry about the kids (or yourself) sneaking a bite out of it — but be mindful of intolerance.

If you’d rather feel like gluing your kids to the wall (I don’t judge), Wheatglue can come in handy. It’s as easy as mixing flour and water, as Instructabler theRIAA shows. It’s one of the oldest glues ever, used since antiquity to bind books and in the more modern art of plastering posters. Plus, it’s biodegradable so the little ones will come off on their own after some time.

This is not chicken — seriously. It’s seitan, which is basically gluten. The broccoli is just broccoli. Image credits: John / Flickr.

You can use gluten as an alternative to tofu (seitan) and will likely appreciate its more robust texture and stronger aroma compared to the subtle soy product. And as a bonus for vegetarians, you’ll finally have a go-to answer for when people ask where you get your protein from. It even looks a lot like meat, and it’s much healthier than tofu.

So is gluten right for you? Well, statistically speaking, probably yes.

wheat

Climate change is making food crops toxic

A startling report by the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) says food crops like wheat and maize are generating toxins to protect themselves from extreme weather. Ingesting food made from toxic crops can lead to neurological diseases, but the greatest concern is cancer says Alex Ezeh, executive director of the African Population Health and Research Center. Cases of people dying from toxic crops have been reported in Kenya and the Philippines in 2013 and 2005, respectively.

wheat

Credit: Pixabay

Extreme conditions like drought or floods are stressful to plants and they respond by altering their chemical and biological processes.

In normal conditions plants convert the nitrate from the soil into amino acids and proteins, but during droughts, plants hold on to the nitrate. Eating the nitrate-rich crop will then impede red cells from transporting oxygen effectively. Crops that are susceptible to nitrate accumulation are  maize, wheat, barley, soybeans, millet and sorghum, the report outlined.

In the other extreme, too much rain causes plants to accumulate  hydrogen cyanide (HCN) or prussic acid. Hydrogen cyanide is extremely poisonous to mammals, and high concentrations can kill a human being within a few minutes. It forms a major component of Zyklon B, a brand-name gas used by the Nazis during World War II to kill prisoners in the concentration camps of Auschwitz and Majdanek.

Almost all plants produce HCN, but climate change is driving concentrations to potentially hazardous levels. It can accumulate in assava, flax, maize, sorghum.

Jacqueline McGlade, chief scientist and director of the Division of Early Warning and Assessment at UNEP, says 4.5 billion people in the developing world are at risk of being intoxicated with  aflatoxins. These are molds that contaminate plants and raise the risk for liver damage and cancer.

“And at the other extreme, in more damp and flooding conditions you see fungal growth. We’ve seen burning of large amounts of stored maize and seeds in towns and cities in East Africa, because fungi spread and you can see them – they’re like a black mold sitting the seeds themselves. Of course, if that’s not picked up and it’s put into the milling, it goes in the flour, which means it makes its way into the bread that we eat,” McGlade told DW in an interview.

“There’s a lot of evidence that acute exposure particularly to aflatoxins – these fungal toxins – but also prussic acid, can be lethal. And we have many instances here, certainly in East Africa, where that has occurred.”

“We’re also worried there’s an exposure issue – which means if you continue to have access and eat the crops that are contaminated, it can lead to cancer, it can stunt fetal growth, infant growth, it suppresses immunity. There’s a whole raft of things in the population at large when they’re exposed to these,” she added.

According to the  International Livestock Research Institute, 300 people from Kenya were exposed to aflatoxin poisoning in 2004, killing 100.

The UNEP report warns Europe there’s a growing aflatoxin poisoning risk if global temperatures rise by two degrees Celsius. As agreed in Paris last year, the world has committed to keeping carbon emissions to levels that will restrict warming to three degrees Celsius.

There’s now a mounting body of evidence that suggests climate change could pose disastrous consequences to the global food supply. Climate change is causing lower crop yields, makes crops less nutritious, and asw we’ve learned today, even toxic. Whether you like it or not, genetically modified food is the only viable solution to our growing food problem.

 

 

India’s Bakey edible spoon does two of my favorite things: limits dishes and plastic waste

India-based company Bakeys has started producing edible spoons to try and fight world-wide plastic waste from disposable cutlery. Not only eco-friendly, but also delicious!

India-based Bakeys makes edible spoons in an attempt to cut back on plastic waste.
Image via inhabitat

I don’t know about you but I’m not big on plastic cups. Or plates. Or cutlery, for that matter. Even if they’re not the 2 cent-a-dozen variety that manage to break even when confronted with a salad, I just don’t like how food and drink from plastic containers tastes. Their main selling point is that they’re dine-and-forget. And, as there’s not one person alive excited to do the dishes, it’s a pretty strong sales pitch. But this only means that we’re throwing away an absurd amount of these things, some 7 million tonnes of plastic yearly from the USA alone, EPA estimates.

And I’d much rather eat my own plate than leave it laying around in a landfill for millions of years.

Narayana Peesapaty, founder of Bakeys, seems to feel the same way as I do on this topic. He was appalled to see India’s diners throw away an estimated 120 billion plastic utensils each year. But instead of just writing about it, he actually started doing something about it — a very delicious something. Peesapaty developed a new type of single use spoon, one that you can eat after your meal.

Made of millet, rice and wheat, Bakeys edible spoons are designed to last for up to 20 minutes in hot liquids, and come in several flavors: ginger-cinnamon, ginger-garlic, cumin, celery, black pepper, mint-ginger, and carrot-beet. There’s also a sugar-only option if you’re not looking to spice up your meal. They’re completely vegan-friendly too, if that’s your thing. Ironically, this spoon might be the healthiest part of your meal if you’re living in the United States.

And come on, a spoon that you can eat with your food? How awesome an idea is that?! No wonder then that they’re a huge success — Bakey has already sold more than 1.5 million spoons. Peepsapaty launched a Kickstarter campaign to expand the brand worldwide which received overwhelming support. From a 20,000$ goal, they raised more than $106,000 as of writing this article. And there’s more than two weeks to go.

Because Bakey is already manufacturing the spoons for sale in India, the company is promising a reward of 100 spoons in the flavor of your choice for every pledge of $10. The funds will go toward expanding current operations and increasing production. A new facility is already under construction that will turn out more than 800,000 of the edible spoons each day and the company plans to expand to other utensils within a few months.

While the spoons are a great alternative for domestic use, Peesapaty says he’s really after large commercial customers, where his tasty ustensils can really make a dent in worldwide plastic waste.

 

8,000 Year Old Wheat Found in UK, 2,000 Years Before They Started Growing it

According to a new study, ancient hunter-gatherer Britons imported wheat from mainland Europe, showing a surprising level of sophistication for such an old population.

Image credits: Leonard Coldwell.

Wheat growing emerged at that fuzzy line where Europe meets Asia 12,000 years ago and then slowly spread across Europe. However, being so far away and separated by a growing line of water, Britain was one of the last places in Europe to adopt this practice. From what we know, Britons only grew wheat 6,000 years ago, so this evidence shows that they were importing it way before they were growing it.

“These results suggest that sophisticated social networks linked the Neolithic front in southern Europe to the Mesolithic peoples of northern Europe,” the researchers concluded. “There was a real cultural link between the ancient Britons and Europe,” said Robin Allaby, of the Univ. of Warwick, who led the study. “So Mesolithic people were not simply and quickly replaced by Neolithic peoples. Instead there was a long period — thousands of years — of interaction between the two.”

Eight millennia ago, Europe might have looked very differently than it does today – in fact, some geologists argue that Britain was still connected to the mainland through a land called Doggerland. But even if a land bridge did exist, the fact that such cultural (and maybe even economic) interaction existed is quite surprising. Allaby and evolutionary geneticist at the University of Warwick, continued:

“We were surprised to find wheat. This is a smoking gun of cultural interaction. It will upset archaeologists. The conventional view of Britain at the time was that it was cut off. We can only speculate how they got wheat — it could have been trade, a gift or stolen.”

Researchers found fragments of wheat DNA recovered from an ancient peat bog, alongside numerous other DNA fragments from wolves, dogs, deer, poplar, beech, and oak woods. However, no wheat pollen was found from the site, suggesting the plant was not grown nearby. Furthermore, wheat species are endemic to the Middle East so it’s extremely unlikely that they were grown locally. To make things even more interesting, archaeologists found DNA of (likely domesticated) pigs – a staple of Germany in those times.

It seems that a relatively advanced population of farmers arrived in Britain, encountering the local hunter-gatherers. They either traded, gifted or were robbed of their possessions and then left; if they had stayed, they would have likely began cultivating wheat or growing pigs.

Simone Riehl, an archaeologist at Tuebingen Univ. in Germany who also wasn’t involved in the study, said extracting DNA from sediment could revolutionize our understanding of ancient cultures, especially in areas where such evidence is scarce or where it was covered by water.

“The interpretation of ancient DNA signatures from such sediments however will probably remain debatable for a long time,” said Riehl.

The recovered DNA (of the wheat-known as einkorn) was collected from sediment that was once a peat bog next to a river. Since no grains were found in the sediment, the DNA probably came from wheat flour

“Probably the people would use such a product to make a dough. It is a simple matter to add water to flour, resulting in a flatbread which they could eat,” he said.

Journal Reference: Oliver Smith, Garry Momber, Richard Bates, Paul Garwood, Simon Fitch, Mark Pallen, Vincent Gaffney, Robin G. Allaby. Sedimentary DNA from a submerged site reveals wheat in the British Isles 8000 years agoDOI: 10.1126/science.1261278