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Photo: Plant physiologists Charlene Tanaka and Bill Hurkman compare protein patterns in wheat during grain development. Link to photo information
Plant physiologists Charlene Tanaka and Bill Hurkman compare protein patterns in wheat during grain development. Click the image for more information about it.

Protein Profilers Sleuth Wheat Kernels

By Marcia Wood
January 4, 2005

Fragrant slices of freshly baked artisan breads owe much of their goodness to top-quality wheat flour, as well as to the baker's skill. The quality of wheat flours that bakers use is due, in large part, to the work of hundreds of different proteins in the wheat kernels, or grains, from which the flour is milled.

Agricultural Research Service scientists in California are taking a closer look at these proteins. Their intent? To create even better wheat flours for tomorrow. Plant physiologist William J. Hurkman at the ARS Western Regional Research Center in Albany, in the San Francisco Bay area, is focusing on wheat's so-called "metabolic" proteins. Though mostly mysterious, these proteins are known to be essential to a kernel's growth.

Hurkman, who is in the center's Crop Improvement and Utilization Research Unit, is doing the work with plant physiologist Charlene K. Tanaka and chemist William H. Vensel, also with ARS in Albany.

The scientists have discovered more about the biochemical chores carried out by some 200 metabolic proteins. Proteins' jobs range from storing carbohydrates to protecting kernels against insects.

The researchers have, in addition, documented changes in protein ratios as wheat kernels mature.

Similar research has been done at other labs to identify proteins and their functions in wheat, barley and alfalfa grains, for instance. But the California investigators are probably the first to delve this deeply into the roles and changing ratios of these lesser-known wheat-kernel proteins.

This analysis of hundreds of wheat-kernel proteins is today described as "proteomics," the comprehensive study of the function, structure and location of proteins. The catalog of wheat-kernel proteins that the ARS scientists are compiling is a proteome, just as a genome is a directory of all the genetic material in a plant or animal.

An article in the current issue of the agency's Agricultural Research magazine tells more.

ARS is the U.S. Department of Agriculture's chief scientific research agency.