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?
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!
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.”
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 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.