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It’s pretty amazing when you think about it. The humble wheat kernel, that tiny staple of much of humanity, containing everything it needs to wrest water and nutrients from the soil by some mysterious magic of botany, enabling one kernel to become many. And those kernels are turned into bread by the alchemy of baking, to be eaten by human beings who have evolved the ability to break apart the breadstuff and extract nourishment and energy. Humankind and wheat, close and exclusive partners over the course of millennia.
Amazing, yes, but not quite right.
What if I told you that the wheat kernel is a little bran-coated fraud, taking credit for the work of a host of even smaller living things? What if I told you that the very concept of the individual that digests the wheat is but an illusion? Would you take the blue pill or the red pill?
Back in the days before instant yeast, before grindstones and even before electric toasters, we lived in a world of the senses. We saw our food as we stalked it. We felt it as we pulled it off the tree, stabbed it with a spear or dug it out of the ground. We heard the grunt of the pig we were about to slaughter for dinner. We smelled our leftovers to figure if they were still good to eat. What we saw was what we got. Maybe there was some sort of god or natural essence inhabiting the thing, but still a wheat stalk or a banana or a dyk-dyk was an entity unto itself.
Then that van Leeuwenhoek fellow3 took the still-primitive microscope, improved it, pointed it at everything he could think of and wrote obsessively about it. He blew the lid off the senses-only view of the living world; all kinds of little creatures were swimming, crawling and squirming everywhere, but we couldn’t see them without mechanical help.
Pasteur came along and showed us that these creatures mattered. They fermented our beer and made silkworms curl up and die. While we couldn’t see them walking down the street, we knew they were there, a few friendly allies but mostly hordes of enemies waiting to sicken or kill us. Ugh, germs!
Cholera, gangrene, pneumonia, influenza. Call for more antibiotics and bleach! Reject the unsanitary practices of the past and make bread scientifically, free of all taint—billowy and whiter than white. Wonder Bread and antibacterial hand soap to the rescue!
Over the past couple decades, cracks have appeared in our antimicrobial armor, and the desire for a total war on microbes is beginning to abate. Those wiley bacteria seem to be defying our best efforts to control them with antibiotics (a scary prospect). Probiotics and fermented foods are ever more widely seen by the public as the new superfood. And, of great interest to bakers, bread leavened by the wild yeast and bacteria in a sourdough culture is not only coming back with a vengeance (even industrial bakers want to get in on the act) but there are tangible benefits associated with the digestion of wheat during fermentation.
But that’s just the tip of the paradigm shift in the thinking about the role of the microbial world in the everyday life of us non-microbes. We are now beginning to understand how microbes are in us, of us, and part of us.
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