Sep 29 2017

GM Wheat for the Gluten Sensitive

gluten (1)Celiac disease is a serious disorder that affects about 1% of the population worldwide. The disease results from an immune reaction to gliadin, which is part of the gluten protein found in wheat, rye, and barely. Glutens are stretchy proteins that give breads their sponginess and allow breads to rise.

Those with celiac disease make antibodies to gliadin, which causes inflammation of the lining of the small intestine and a number of painful and harmful symptoms. It can now be accurately diagnosed with blood tests for the anti-gliadin antibodies, but the only treatment is a life-long diet free of any gluten.

Gluten has also caught the attention of the clean-eating food fad crowd, who have convinced many people they have non-celiac gluten sensitivity. As I discussed previously, this entity is controversial at best and probably doesn’t exist. However, it is always important to point out that many people who end up falling into an ultimately false diagnosis may have a different real disease. Some people who now get labeled as gluten sensitive may actually have wheat allergies. There are other possible culprits as well, such as FODMAPs (fermentable, oligo-, di-, monosaccharides, and polyols).

Regardless, life for those with celiac disease can be challenging. The diet is rigorous, and even the smallest amount of gluten can trigger a reaction in those truly sensitive. 

Genetic Modification to the Rescue

Researchers are attempting to address this situation by creating a genetically modified wheat that produces gluten without the gliadin component that triggers the immune response. They recently published the results of their initial work. Essentially they identified 45 genes in wheat that are related to gliadin, and they used CRISPR to silence or remove them. They report:

The -gliadin gene family of wheat contains four highly stimulatory peptides, of which the 33-mer is the main immunodominant peptide in celiac patients. We designed two sgRNAs to target a conserved region adjacent to the coding sequence for the 33-mer in the -gliadin genes. Twenty-one mutant lines were generated, all showing strong reduction in -gliadins. Up to 35 different genes were mutated in one of the lines of the 45 different genes identified in the wild type, while immunoreactivity was reduced by 85%.

A “33-mer” is simply a protein component made of 33 amino acids (proteins are basically folded chains of 20 different amino acids). In one of the mutant lines created they were able to silence 35 of the 45 genes used to produce gliadin, with an 85% reduction in the immune response. They plan to continue their work to silence all 45 genes, which will hopefully result in 100% reduction in immune response.

The resulting wheat will not be exactly like regular wheat, but it will still have gluten, just not as spongy as regular gluten. It can apparently be used to make some breads and other wheat products and could be a huge boon to those with celiac disease.

Similar efforts are under way to use genetic modification techniques to make other foods safer for some or all of the population. One target of extensive research is peanuts. Peanut and tree nut allergies are common and can be fatal. Research is under way to identify the genes that code for the allergy-causing proteins, and then CRISPR them away.

This will prove challenging, however, and will likely take longer than rosy predictions. Because nut allergies can be severe, you really have to get all the allergy causing genes. I will then be necessary to either completely segregate the hypoallergenic nuts, or completely replace the regular varieties. Further, it remains to be seen what the resulting nuts will be like in terms of taste and nutrition.

But still, these all seem like solvable problems. The reduction in health-care costs from treating unintended nut allergic reactions is probably worth the cost of research and development.

There are already GMO potato varieties that have reduce acrylamide, which is a compound that can increase the risk of cancer when it is cooked.

These types of genetic changes, it should be pointed out, do not involve inserting new genes into crops but just silencing or removing existing genes. Because of this the risk of unintended consequences is small.

These examples show the potential of genetic modification to make our food safer, and reduce health-care costs. This, of course, adds to the potential harm caused by ideological opposition to genetically modified organisms.

12 responses so far

12 thoughts on “GM Wheat for the Gluten Sensitive”

  1. BBBlue says:

    As GE tools become more precise and predictable, and obvious benefits accrue to regular people, the anti-biotech crowd will become even more strident. They can’t afford to let biotech succeed any more than it already has no matter how many people will benefit.

  2. hardnose says:

    DNA is NOT well understood. Messing with it is almost guaranteed to cause unexpected horrors.

    And guess what — GMOs created with CRISPR do not require any safety testing! Not only are they unlabeled (no GMOs are labeled), they are not tested for safety because they do not fit the old definition of GMO.

  3. BBBlue says:

    DNA is NOT well understood. Messing with it is almost guaranteed to cause unexpected horrors.

    Gamma-ray mutagenesis, which represents a far greater risk of unintended consequences than does CRISPR, is USDA Organic and non-GMO Project Verified approved. Yup, the anti-biotech crowd is all about the science and preventing unexpected horrors.

  4. RickK says:

    BBBlue – exactly! One carefully studied and targeted gene gets edited and tested – HORROR! Ban it! Picket in the streets and burn the crops!

    Use chemicals and radiation to cause shotgun blast damage to DNA resulting massive random mutations, then pick one you like – that’s perfectly natural and organic. Package it and sell it at the organic market.

    Ideology trumps reality once again.

  5. RickK says:

    Re peanut allergy – we have personal experience with that. Modern desensitization therapies are safe and effective now that they’re able to utilize precise measurements made possible by the fairly recent production of consistent and reliable peanut flour. Now that the amount of protein can be controlled even at low amounts, desensitization regimens can be precisely moderated. And it works.

  6. Kabbor says:

    “Messing with it is almost guaranteed to cause unexpected horrors.”

    For some reason this makes me think of hardnose as being portrayed by Christopher Lloyd from back to the future. He keeps coming back from various alternate futures to change our ways, as illogical as it seems at the time.

    Let a few die of peanut allergies! The Peanut God-King spares no one! NO ONE!

  7. fbrossea says:

    I think I’m going to start an anti-pickle campaign using anti-GMO rhetoric.

    “Every year thousands vegetables are soaked in a chemical soup FOR SEVERAL MONTHS until the product is unrecognizable from the start. The colorS start to fade, taste is affected and worst of all: we serve it to our children. We do NOT understand this process completely. How can we know it’s safe?”

  8. chikoppi says:

    [fbrossea] I think I’m going to start an anti-pickle campaign using anti-GMO rhetoric.

    I can appreciate that irony so long as you don’t flirt with an anti-fermentation campaign simultaneously. It’s bad enough to consider having to drink my dunkle without pickled red cabbage, but at least I’ll have the beer to numb the cravings.

  9. SteveA says:

    Could be my imagination, but I’m sensing a Rick and Morty flavour to some of the comments here…

  10. fbrossea says:


    As long as the result isn’t some freak sandwich resistant cabbage. Everybody knows big lunch meat is in bed with the pickle industry.

  11. KillCurve says:

    My daughter has Celiac disease, so I am watching these developments with great interest.

  12. Lane Simonian says:

    What I am looking forward to is GM wheat for the herbicide sensitive.

Leave a Reply