Gluten is a general name for the proteins found in wheat, rye, barley and triticale. These proteins are important since many people cannot tolerate these in their diet and may show various reactions to it. Various symptoms of gluten allergy includes diarrhea, vomiting, rash, difficulty in breathing etc. which are known to occur in people sensitive to gluten or wheat. Celiac disease is an autoimmune disorder triggered in genetically predisposed individuals, however more people are realizing that even without celiac disease, they may still suffer from gluten sensitivity known as non-celiac gluten sensitivity, or other conditions. Regardless of the condition, this implies that these individuals cannot consume bread and other products such as pasta, French fries, beer, some meats etc.
Fortunately, for people with minor allergies and sensitivities against gluten, scientists have removed a majority of the genes in wheat, reducing the gluten content. Most immune reactions to gluten are caused by a component in gluten called gliadins. Researchers at the Institute for Sustainable Agriculture in Cordoba, Spain, have used the gene editing tool, CRISPR to remove most of the gliadins from wheat.
Effects of gluten in intolerant people
The study published in the journal Plant Biotechnology, describes the application of CRISPR/ Cas9 to remove 35 of the 45 genes which code for the main gliadin protein. They reported that there was an 85% reduction of immunoreactions against this new wheat. Unfortunately, this current wheat strain won’t help people with celiac disease while the remaining few genes still function since it would not produce gluten free flour. However, for people with less serious gluten-sensitivity issues that can still digest small amounts of gluten, this method would allow them to eat wheat products without fear of the resulting effects.
This technique could allow researchers to breed low gluten wheat strains that people with gluten-sensitivity are naturally less reactive to, leading to a naturally low-gluten flour. The team now hopes to disable the remaining 10 genes to make sure that no gliadin proteins are produced. Hopefully in the future there will be engineered wheat strains that produce gluten free flour, which is safe for consumption for people with celiac disease.
While this technology could offer new options for people with celiac disease, unfortunately not everyone supports the use of CRISPR. So far, the genetically modified wheat has been tested on a small group of people with celiac disease in Mexico. And while the results are yet to be published, researchers have described them as ‘very encouraging’.
Sánchez‐León, S., Gil‐Humanes, J., Ozuna, C. V., Giménez, M. J., Sousa, C., Voytas, D. F., & Barro, F. (2017). Low‐gluten, non‐transgenic wheat engineered with CRISPR/Cas9. Plant Biotechnology Journal.