Super-Wheat

Okay, I’ve talked about food security a couple of times before, and let’s face it, I’ve been pretty pessimistic in the past. However, potentially at least, the genome of wheat business could be good news. Improved crop yields, resistance to disease, resistance to water shortages and climate changes … all of these could be very important, given our current global circumstances.

However, before we all get maniacally excited and decide the world is saved and there will be no more problems, nevah EVAR!, a couple of notes of caution:

  • 1. Sequencing the genome is the start, not the end. For instance, the human genome has been sequenced for a decade or so, but genetic medicine remains something of a pipe dream. We still don’t have a clear idea what all of those 30,000 or so genes do, let alone how they interact with each other. And this is the case of the most well-studied organism on Earth, as well.
  • 2. What about the proteome? I can’t help but notice no mention of the wheat proteome. And presumably, umm, if the plan is to use genetic engineering to make super-wheat, then the enzymes and so on are going to become important, right?
  • 3. The social-political dimension. Look at what happened with GM food. And, umm, that’s what super-wheat will be, basically. If there’s no market for it, then the research risks remaining an academic curiosity. And I’m afraid this isn’t one those things where we can turn around at the last minute and pull a super-food out of our backsides at the last minute … I’ll agree that the NIMBYs might change their minds about GM when the dieback begins and they get a bit hungry, but it’ll be far too late by then. There is a widespread, and growing, distrust of new ideas and technologies, partly fueled by things like the ghost-writing scandal, and partly by dodgy politics, and this is a major barrier.

Now, I should stress that I’m not trying to belittle the research in question. Quite the contrary. I think it’s interesting, I think it’s an important beginning and I think it could be very significant. As I said earlier, this could be very good news. However, I got annoyed with the breathless and giddy tone of some of the reporting in parts of the media.

Admittedly, I shouldn’t be surprised by idiot journalists either failing to understand or just plain mis-representing what they’d been told, but critical thinking is a key part of any scientific endeavour. (It’d be interesting if journalists had to cite a bibliography to support their assertions…) And to make this go somewhere useful, a lot of critical thinking will be needed.

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