Genetically modified wheat brings hope for those forced to avoid gluten – report


There is good news if you that one in a 100 who are forced to avoid gluten because it triggers a dangerous immune reaction.

According to a report in the New Scientist, there are now genetically modified strains of wheat that will let you eat your bread and cake too.

“It’s regarded as being pretty good, certainly better than anything on the gluten-free shelves,” Jan Chojecki of PBL-Ventures in the UK, who is working with investors in North America to market products made with this wheat, was quoted as saying by the New Scientist.

Gluten is the general term for all the proteins in wheat and related cereals. During baking, these proteins link up to form elastic chains, which is what holds breads and cakes together as they rise, the journal explained.

But some people have an autoimmune condition called coeliac disease. Their immune systems respond incorrectly to gluten, which damages the gut lining and can lead to diarrhoea, vomiting, malnutrition, brain damage and even gut cancers.

Not all gluten proteins trigger this response, though: the main culprit is a group called gliadins, which is what Francisco Barro’s team at the Institute for Sustainable Agriculture in Cordoba, Spain, set about getting rid of them, the report said.

According to the report, The scientists used a genetic modification technique to remove 90 per cent of the gliadins in wheat by adding genes that trigger a process called RNA interference, which stops specific proteins being made.

But because the gliadin genes themselves remain intact, in theory, there is a risk that the wheat could start making the crucial proteins again, the report added.

So Barro’s team next tried using CRISPR gene-editing to get rid of the genes entirely — a huge task because there are no fewer than 45 copies of the gene for the main gliadin protein that causes problems.

The report said Barro’s team had managed to knock out 35 of the 45 genes.

More genes need to be disabled before the CRISPR strain is ready for testing, but it should be worth all the effort: the team have already shown that the GM wheat strain makes an acceptable bread. It cannot be used for making large sliced loafs, but is good enough for baguettes and rolls, said Chojecki.

Some people will be happy with the results, but others may not want to eat genetically modified foods, or to take the risk that some immune-triggering components remain in the wheat, .

Small trials of the GM wheat involving 10 and 20 people with coeliac disease are already being carried out in Mexico and Spain.

“All I can say is that the results are very encouraging,” the report quoted Chojecki as saying.



Shekhar Ghosh is a communications consultant and and former journalist, who has edited and written for publications such as like Business India, Business Standard, Business Today and Outlook.

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