The role of the protein ranges from storing carbohydrates to protecting kernels against insects. Scientists at an Agricultural Research Service unit in the US believe that discovering more about the work of these proteins - and how they are affected by the heat, soil nutrients, and other environmental conditions in which the plant is grown - could lead to even better flours for tomorrow.
Positive findings for flour improvement will be welcomed by the bakery industry, which in the UK for example, has lately witnessed a drop in wheat quality.
The UK's Home Grown Cereals Authority recently warned that in some regions wheat quality is at its lowest for a decade after this year's rain-soaked harvest.
The lack of quality wheat suitable for milling from the 2003 harvest also meant that prices rose by around 60 per cent in eight months, leaving many UK millers struggling just to break even, according to Chris Holmes, chief executive of a top UK miller, Carr's Milling Industries.
The HGCA noted in November that although wheat prices were not as high as at the beginning of 2004, they are likely to remain volatile.
"We saw price moves of more than £50 last season and it will happen again," said HCGA senior economist Julian Bell. The authority says that while prices often change between planting and harvesting, current predictions for 2005 put wheat prices another 10 per cent ahead of 2004 values.
The ARS analysis of hundreds of wheat-kernel proteins is 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.
Gluten proteins are the most abundant and most studied. Researchers already know that these proteins have a premier role in influencing a flour's quality.
But according to ARS, scientists know very little about wheat kernels' so-called metabolic proteins, which occur in much smaller amounts. It is known, however, that these mostly mysterious proteins are essential to a kernel's growth. For example, wheat plants need metabolic proteins to form the gluten proteins and to make starch. Gluten and starch are the main components of flour.