Spanish scientists from the Institute of Sustainable Agriculture in Cordoba have created a low-gluten strain of wheat, which could be good news for people with celiac disease. The team developed the cereal using a gene-editing technique called CRISPR and their hope is that one day soon it will be used to make low-gluten bread.
Gluten is an umbrella term covering more than 200 different proteins found in the seeds of wheat, rye, and barley crops. It's responsible for making bread rise and gives it a soft, elastic structure.
Certain conditions can cause an adverse reaction to gluten. The most prominent of these is celiac disease, an autoimmune disorder thought to affect roughly 1 percent of the population. Eating gluten triggers an immune response in celiac patients that damages the lining of the small intestine and causes symptoms such as bloating, diarrhea, and fatigue.
Often gluten-free bread lacks the texture and flavor of the real thing, which is where the new strain of wheat comes in.
The researchers developed the gene-edited crop using CRISPR/Cas9 technology. This, essentially, cuts and pastes small sections of DNA, allowing scientists to remove sections of the gene that triggers an autoimmune response in celiac patients. In one strain, the team was able to delete 35 of the 45 genes that code for α-gliadin, the component in gluten that is responsible for gluten intolerance.
As Sarah Sleet, chief executive of Coeliac UK, told The Independent, this particular strain of wheat might not reduce symptoms for all celiacs. This is because the exact protein component that causes a gluten intolerance differs between individuals.
“What we don’t know in terms of this work, where they have got rid of the most toxic protein epitopes, does that mean that the product is safe for everybody who has coeliac disease?” she said. “There is still some work to be done around that.”
It's not the first time CRISPR has been used in food production. From apples that stay fresher for longer to low-fat pigs that contain 24 percent less fat than your average porker, we can expect more and more genetically modified produce to hit the shelves.