Abigail Murrish: How Wheat’s Genome Echos of the Strength Found in the Diversity of God’s People

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Like many kids, I grew up picking wild grasses believing that they were wheat. I would pick one from the yard of my childhood home, believing the harvest I held in my hands could be transformed into food. As I grew up, I quickly learned that the “wheat” in my yard was far from a bountiful harvest and instead was actually weeds and wild grasses.

Yet, my childhood confusion about wheat is, in one sense, understandable. Wheat is a part of the grass family. In Matthew’s telling of the Parable of the Weeds, the “weeds” represent darnel, “a poisonous weed organically related to wheat, and difficulty to distinguish from wheat in the early stages of the growth,” writesNew Testament scholar Craig Keener.

In the Bible, wheat is used as a metaphor for the people of God. The scientific study of wheat prompts reflection on how what distinguishes God’s people and how our vast diversity can strengthen us all.

Wheat’s genetic makeup has baffled scientists. But last summer, after 13 years of research, a team of international scientists cracked the wheat’s genome to reveal the baffling, beautiful genetic material that makes wheat, well, wheat.

Essentially, a genome contains all of the genetic knowledge needed to create and sustain an organism.

It would be easy to assume that the wheat genome would be more straightforward to sequence than the human genome. After all, human beings are the crowning achievement of God’s creative work while wheat is a mere plant. However, the wheat genome holds mysteries that offered significant challenges to research scientists who wanted to understand this plant at the most minute level.

The full sequence of the human genome was published in 2003, concluding a project begun in 1990. But early crop sequencing projects finished faster than that. It took four years to complete both the rice genome, published in 2002, and the maize genome, published in 2009.

But the wheat genome is massive and complicated. Bread wheat boasts 16 billion DNA letters, a staggering number compared to the 3 billion found in the human genome. Additionally, over thousands of years through natural hybridization and human domestication, the wheat we consume today actually contains three different genomes, which makes mapping the genetic sequence a daunting mission.

Yet the International Wheat Genome Sequencing Consortium—a team of scientists from 19 different countries—recently published a nearly complete genome of the wheat variety Chinese Spring. Taking 13 years and $75 million, the scientists were able to shed light on the material God uses to create wheat.

By understanding in-depth the genetic makeup of wheat, scientists will be able to focus on how different genetic traits impact wheat production and more quickly and precisely refine our wheat to ensure bountiful harvest.

Throughout the Bible, wheat is used symbolically and literally to illustrate how God is at work in the world. The lack of grain and dried up fields are indicative of God’s judgment on his people, and likewise the presence of a bountiful harvest reflects God’s grace. Moreover, Scripture repeatedly points to the harvest of wheat as an illustration of God’s work of gathering a people to himself.

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Source: Christianity Today