The Rise (and Fall?) of Genetically-Engineered Bread

Bread is a delicate alchemy of yeast, water, and flour. Thus the eternal quest for the perfect loaf, sustained by culinary connoisseurs, bread baking schools, artisan bakers--and now, USDA scientists. The newest bread aficionados aren't slaving over a hot oven, however. They're altering the genetic makeup of wheat to engineer the optimal bread-baking grain.

To Rise or Not to Rise

USDA scientists Ann Blechl hopes to "give bakers an edge in the kitchen" by producing glutenin-enriched wheat. Glutenin, bread baking school students will know, is the protein responsible for the dough's cohesiveness--the stretchy texture it gets when it is ready to rise. Beyond this point, the glutenin breaks down and loses its ability to trap gas bubbles, producing a flat loaf.

Bionic Wheat

Overmixing is a problem for commercial bakers who use industrial equipment. Lacking the sensitivity of a baker's touch, these machines regularly overshoot the window during which the dough is in optimal condition for rising. Blechl's glutenin-enriched solution: "by increasing the levels of these native proteins, we've been able to increase tolerance to mixing." In other words, the uber-wheat is more resilient to rough treatment, and less likely to end up in the dumpster. Given that a large bakery uses about 300,000 pounds of flour a day, according to the North American Millers Association, Blechl's innovation could conserve a considerable amount of flour.

Bread Baking Alchemy in Culinary School

The bottom line, however, is that bread is a living organism, and as such isn't amenable to industrial production. NAMA president Jim Bair comments, "You're taking a biological product and putting it into a highly automated system. Often Mother Nature isn't agreeable."

Can USDA scientists overcome nature with genetic engineering? Their success remains to be seen. But don't expect to see Superwheat in culinary bread baking schools quite yet. Culinary artisans understand that the essence of bread is in its sensitive chemistry. Your bread baking school education will teach you to work with--not against--the subtle alchemy that produces a great loaf.

  • "USDA Works to Improve Bread Baking with Biotechnology," Yahoo! Finance