Leaves of Grass

A child said, What is the grass? fetching it to me with full hands; How could I answer the child?  I do not know what it is any more than he.
..Walt Whitman

I was amazed to find this week that the humble barley grass has a genome two thirds larger than ours, and more amazing still, it holds the code for as many as a thousand enzymes which all form part of man’s mechanical needs.


Nature.com has made a detailed analysis of the barley grass genome, including this striking map, above.

The concentric rings represent what is known so far about the seven chromosomes (a), with “high confidence” genes for each shown on the next layer (b), moving on to the final expression (g).

The concept of a gene as a unit of specfic and discreet codons has vanished with the more complex systems view of genomes. Track “f”, for example, shows transposons shared by numerous elements before their emergence in track “g” as the classically imagined genetic component.

As much as 84% of the barley genome (a diploid system) is formed of such “mobile or repeating structures with shared or multiple function”; this is no simple mechanism.

What we think of as a gene is actually many fragments combined via several layers of devious logic, with the mechanism of their precise alignment still a mystery.  The bigger question is why should barley grass, originating some 70m years ago and therefore preceding the Cenozoic era in which mammals originated by a nahdful of millions of years, contain so many intensely complex pieces of machinery, all essential to mammalian forms?

superoxide dismutase

(superoxide dismutase) http://necat.chem.cornell.edu/Structures2/4E4E.html
Even in the ultra-fast molecular bustle within the cell, where any substrate molecule can collide with each and every protein on average about once per second, this enzyme is a star performer

Enzymes are stupefying bits of machinery, putting the finest man-made designs to shame.  You can see for yourself the vast number and their functions here.  In pineapple, for example, there is the enzyme bromelaine which slices up proteins at a rate of 30,000 per second, and in papaya is papain, a microscopic grinder slicing up fibrin at a comparable rate.  Fibrin is a tough material which clogs up our arteries and which tumour cells weave around themselves for protection and to attach themselves to internal organs.

Interestingly, papain is most active at about 40C, which means steeping the leaves in tea is a perfect way to activate its clean-up operations in our body.  It is a highly complex machine, but of little use to the papaya fruit.

The problem with western food is that its enzymes have been heated, denatured, or processed into oblivion.  Our food is not really food, but a chemical mix engineered for taste to generate sales.  Its manufacture fascinates the engineers, its sales delight the accountants, its long life satisfies the shippers and handlers, while its components form a toxic burden on our body.

Our pancreas must produce many more enzymes over a longer period than if we adopted a natural diet.  Due to a lack of these microscopic chainsaws and bean grinders, decades of dead material clog up our digestive tract, covering even the essential absorptive Peyer’s patches.  The day comes when caffeine can no longer jolt us out of our fatigue, and at some critical juncture the immune system is overwhelmed by a crisis of some sort or another, and sickness disrupts our giddy round of appetite, taste and satiation.  It’s then when we curse nature for her thoughtlessness.  Why me?  Why, indeed – once again, the most important question of all, in a logical universe!


Warning: product not FDA approved for medicinal purposes. Manufacturer unknown. Side effects may include: regular digestive activity, elevated mood, amplified neural chemistry, and failure to keel over, clutching heart

A supplement I found particularly useful is barley grass, in various forms, because of its unbelievable store of enzymes useful to the repair and maintenance of the human body.  Nature has not created cancer to lay in wait for us any more than scurvy; we created these all for ourselves.  They are a sign of a failed experiment.  And what a failure!  Two thirds of Americans are seriously overweight, while one in two of us will develop cancer, and one in three will die with it.

The view of nature as one system is the oldest concept on Earth, and a mark of progress would be to unite with its underlying framework, instead of departing from it at an alarming angle.  Our modern idea to plaster a chemical solution on top of every problem we create and deal with the ensuing fallout by means of a new chemical experiment, has resulted in a plethora of hassles from which we cannot emerge either individually or as a society without modifying our outlook.

There are thousands of different kinds of enzymes at work in us, some with “co-factors” or helper molecules which assist in their activity.  Their speeds vary tremendously and are measured by the term Kcat, standing for kinetic catalytic rate, the number of completed reactions per second.

Fastest of all is the essential superoxide dismutase (SOD, above) which can carry out as many as ten million reactions per second, protecting us from the toxic “superoxide anion radicals” produced inside cells by converting them into hydrogen peroxide.  Three specialised forms of it work outside and inside the cell, and inside the mitochondria.  It is so important that according to Joseph Beckman, Ph.D. (Professor of Biochemistry and Biophysics) “one-half percent of the soluble protein in your body is made up of this enzyme.”

Engineering at the molecular level is staggeringly complex.  Chemists wrestling with these problems have struggled to make an enzyme, based on natural ones, working at two reactions per second.  This dismal result might be because the natural enzyme itself works as a system, and if lacking a given element, fails to work at all.  Nature seems comprised of concentric systems, each one a complete engineering success, and many with multiple functions.

For example, another useful supplement is ubiquinol (from the word ‘ubiquitous’), a remarkable molecule which helps other enzymes function, acts as an anti-oxidant, and carries electrons in the electron transport chain – a process which revs up the tens of thousands of ATP synthase motors in each of your cells’ mitochondria.  Taking ubiquinone as raw material, the body generates the useful ubiquinol, but produces less as we age. A lack of ubiquinol is implicated in type II diabetes, among other diseases, while the ubiquinone remains constant, implicating an accelerated aging of the cellular mechanisms for those on a Western diet.

Compared to control groups of aged mice wobbling around uncertainly, mice given the reduced form, ubiquinol, leapt about more like grandchildren.  Are we men or mice? As Groucho Marx said, “throw a piece of cheese on the floor, and we’ll find out.”

groucho marx

None of the Marx brothers were strictly religious, but retained a great sympathy for their Jewish roots, and for the racism they faced in America; Groucho switched from a German to a Jewish character when the Lusitania was sunk.  In the 1930’s, politely told by a hotel manager that Jews could not use the pool, Groucho asked if his son, being only half Jewish, might be allowed in up to his knees

Each enzyme is very specialised, having a reception area almost precisely matching the form and characteristics of a target molecule.  There is a small variation so that proximity causes the enzyme to close in and precisely lock.  Some versions of SOD require manganese, others copper or zinc, to activate its mechanical activity. The body produces it, but it is also found in melons, wheat, corn and soy.  I imagine that mammals adopted this mechanism through horizontal gene transfer at the earliest stage of evolution, showing the significance of the entire ecosystem, including us, as a single system: something Monsanto does not seem to want to understand in their rush for profits.

Every level of life seems completely engineered in and of itself, and each forms a component for successively higher forms, whose genomes are not necessarily proportionally larger.  Engineers within the Human Genome Project were surprised to find we have only perhaps 20,000 protein-coding genes; the humble ant has some 15,000 and rice a staggering 35,000.  The genome of barley grass consists of 5.3 billion base pairs in every cell – all backed up in diploid form – whereas ours is far less, at 3.2 billion.


The amino acid construction of superoxide dismutase in eleven different bacteria are compared here in a chart from  Science Direct   showing the number of amino acids to be generally 1056, with some variations, meaning more than 3,000 base pairs are needed specify this remarkable, and essential, machine

The concept of “higher” does not come from counts of base pairs or genes, but from somewhere else, an element appreciated only by consciousness itself.  As they define our humanity, perhaps we need a table of these mystical elements as much as we do of iron, magnesium and carbon, and perhaps ancient religions were an early such attempt.  Theorising for a moment a universal consciousness from which life springs would imply a species must become closer to it by virtue of its ability to conceive that very possibility, something lower forms of life seem incapable of; it also implies that we render ourselves more like the lower forms through a disavowal of it.

It is this intangible aspect of our existence which makes our life very different than that of the grass, and which seems to me a possession to be prized above all others.  Moving some mysterious sense within us, expressed in colourful forms by the deepest thinkers of Earth’s societies from the beginning, it has been as perennial as the grass.


What do you think has become of the young and old men? What do you think has become of the women and children? They are alive and well somewhere.
The smallest sprouts show there is really no death, And if ever there was it led forward life, and does not wait at the end to arrest it, And ceased the moment life appeared. All goes onward and outward. . . .and nothing collapses,
And to die is different from what any one supposed, and luckier.
..Walt Whitman

About iain carstairs

I have a great interest in both scientific advances and the beauty of religion, and created www.scienceandreligion.com about 15 years ago with the aim of finding common ground between the scientist and the believer, and to encourage debate between the two sides.
This entry was posted in Biology, Designs in nature, Evolution, Iain Carstairs, Superoxide dismutase, Walt Whitman and tagged , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

10 Responses to Leaves of Grass

  1. Dale Pond says:

    I am not a very scientific minded person but I feel what you are saying. I know that it is important and since statistics show how many of us may get cancer, all the more important for us to at least make an effort to understand the need to appreciate and honour the earth, who provides what we need, not for money but just to feed and care for us. Thanks so much for sharing your on-going journey through cancer.

  2. Patty says:

    Thank-you. Brilliant: poetry and barley grass, I think I’ll meditate, drink the barley grass juice, and read some Whitman to get through my next “what if the cancer comes back” tremors.

    • Understandable but the whole reason I went for a natural solution is because I don’t want to spend the rest of my life being afraid of cancer. We are usually afraid of things which ww don’t understand, which seem dangerous and unpredictable. Then we become superstitious, rushing to anything which seems credible, despite its record of failure. We give up on common sense! Look at what doctors have to say about chemotherapy:

      “Many oncologists recommend chemotherapy for almost any type of cancer, with a faith that is unshaken by the almost constant failures”.
      (Albert Braverman, MD, “Medical Oncology in the 90s”, Lancet, 1991, Vol. 337, p. 901)

      Dr. Hardin Jones, lecturer at the University of California, after having analyzed for many decades statistics on cancer survival, has come to this conclusion: ‘… when not treated, the patients do not get worse or they even get better’. The unsettling conclusions of Dr. Jones have never been refuted. 
      (Walter Last, “The Ecologist”, Vol. 28, no. 2, March-April 1998)

      Doctor Ulrich Able, a German epidemiologist of the Heidelberg Mannheim Tumor Clinic, has exhaustively analyzed and reviewed all the main studies and clinical experiments ever performed on chemotherapy …. Able discovered that the comprehensive world rate of positive outcomes because of chemotherapy was frightening, because, simply, nowhere was scientific evidence available demonstrating that chemotherapy is able to ‘prolong in any appreciable way the life of patients affected by the most common type of organ cancer.’ Able highlights that rarely can chemotherapy improve the quality of life, and he describes it as a scientific squalor while maintaining that at least 80 per cent of chemotherapy administered in the world is worthless. Even if there is no scientific proof whatsoever that chemotherapy works, neither doctors nor patients are prepared to give it up.
      (Lancet, Aug. 10, 1991).

      As usual, nobody actually THINKS about it, and assumes someone else more qualified has already thought it through. These medieval cures are just superstition, but even all the “thinkers” and “skeptics” rush headlong towards it in panic! John Diamond was willing to lose his voicebox and his tongue rather than try “alternative” medicine which he considered a hoax, because it didn’t use science-made chemicals. It’s absurd that the biggest fraud of all was being played on him, but he willingly submitted because it had the backing of large institutions. While being poisoned and hacked to pieces, he wrote a scathing book about alternative therapies without ever delving into the reasoning behind it.

      Chemotherapy can make things much worse. But when a grown man’s immune system is destroyed by this toxic wrecking machine and he succumbs to an infection a newborn baby could overcome, everyone shakes their head and says, “he died from cancer”.

  3. Patty says:

    I’m glad I avoided chemo; my eastern European oncologist didn’t believe it was necessary and also steered me away from Tamoxifen, a chemical therapy in pill form. She suggested survival rates were just as good for women who daily consumed two tablespoons of freshly ground flax seed. I felt I could trust her judgement and appreciated her counsel.

    I chose the least invasive methods and went for the flax seed. Since then, I’ve been very careful about diet, (lots of veggies, organic, very little in the way of sweets, alcohol, gluten, dairy, red meat) and I also try to control my environment for dust and mold, which I’m allergic to, and causes inflammatory reactions. But it is very difficult to control stress, particularly in the type of work I do.

    I think stress has a very large role in a cancer occurrence as I believe there are links to inflammatory responses and cancer, and stress causes inflammatory responses. Meditation seems only good for about four hours of peace and it’s right back, all the clanging and noise of the modern world. I may have to entirely retreat from it: Hornby Island calls.

  4. That’s amazing! I didn’t know about your experience.. I only found about flaxseeds with the Budwig diet, fairly recently. Until then I was struggling to find some kind of core system to stick to every day. How long did it take to see some progress, may I ask?

  5. Kat says:

    Great Whitman quotes with some amazing molecular biology! I don’t have cancer myself but my husband died from leukaemia when he was 42 – or rather from the massive chemo hits, I have always thought. Before he started treatment I told the oncologist I’d prefer to try some alternative cancer treatments through diet and lifestyle changes first. She almost laughed. I really wish I had stood my ground now but in those days I was young and more easily intimidated by medicos claiming superior knowledge.
    Thanks for sharing your inspiring quest Iain. If anyone deserves to succeed you do.

    • I’m terribly sorry to hear about your husband succumbing so young – and I hope you don’t blame yourself for not insisting. My father was diagnosed with lymphoma a few years back, given about two years, and seemed in the peak of health. He looked at it philosophically and declared he would at least enjoy the time remaining, playing tennis as before, holidaying in Florida and so on. He was offered a “new silver bullet” chemo which targeted the tumours only and which, it was said, might give him a further two years. His enthusiasm about this was contagious, and being in his late 70’s he jumped at the chance. After a few absolutely agonising months the tumours went wild, and he was gone.

      So even a medical professional of nearly half a century’s experience finds these claims compelling. I also wish I had known about the molecular stuff in more detail then, and so might have convinced him, but I’m sure he would have had his doubts. Thanks for writing.. and now I see I’m out of flaxseed oil, so off to get some more supplies!

  6. Thomas Paine says:

    I am a Whitman fan and find his poetic description of grass wonderful. I am also a reader of Richard Bucke. Have you connected the two?

    • Yes, in 1976 I read Bucke’s Cosmic Consciousness, and in more than 100 years it hasn’t been surpassed in its depth and coverage of these geniuses. In high school we read On Walden Pond, and that got me interested in Whitman, and eventually in Emerson. These people were the thinkers, inspired human beings. Glad you happened by!

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