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What's Being Done to Ensure Pasta Is Here for Posterity

Josh Falzone
April 12, 2019

If you were to make a list of the world’s top 10 favorite foods, pasta would surely make the cut. It’s a staple food of traditional Italian cuisine, and it’s served at countless dinner tables every night across the globe.

And although it may seem like we could never run out of pasta, crop disease and turbulent weather are a real threat. Fortunately, thanks to biotechnology, steps are being taken to ensure durum wheat – also known as “pasta wheat” – will survive for generations to come.

Just recently, more than 65 researchers collaborated on an effort to develop a high-quality reference genome of durum wheat, which is not an easy task. Durum wheat has four sets of chromosomes, compared to two sets in humans, and it has many repetitive DNA sequences. Popular Science highlighted how this hard work, which was described as “trying to complete two very similar jigsaw puzzles with the pieces all mixed up,” will help scientists improve the crop and make it hardier, benefiting consumers and farmers:

Like other reference genomes, such as those for bread wheat and barley, the reference genome for durum is like a blueprint. That blueprint makes it easier for scientists to go into the genome of real plants, understand what’s happening, and make changes, whether by traditional breeding or gene editing.

Those changes can help make the wheat hardier, better tasting, and more nutritious, or even help preserve and support the yellow color of the wheat that we all associate with pasta. Scientists can even mix in some elements from the genomes of other wheats, such as bread wheat and barley as well as their wild cousins. This can help researchers combat the lack of genetic diversity that makes many crops vulnerable to any kind of change, whether weather or disease.

Innovations, like gene editing, have the potential to transform the world’s food supply, improve the environment, reduce poverty by enabling farmers, and much more. In fact, gene editing is already saving products we love – like coffee and chocolate – from extinction and opening the door for new developments, such as celiac-safe wheat.

Could that mean celiac-safe pasta one day, too? Anything is possible.