You can find plenty of tasty gluten-free products on supermarket shelves, but when it comes to bread, there’s no substitute for the real thing. Gluten, the naturally occurring proteins found in wheat, rye and barley, affect the elasticity of dough and help give bread the chewy, delicious texture that is hard to find in gluten-free alternatives.
Fortunately for people with celiac disease, who experience severe immune reactions to gluten, a better bread option may be on the horizon. As Michael Le Page reports for New Scientist, researchers have genetically engineered a strain of wheat that is free of 90 percent of the types of gluten protein that triggers most adverse symptoms.
Not all types of gluten proteins cause problems for people with celiac. Most symptoms—which can include abdominal pain, vomiting, fatigue, malnutrition and joint pain—are triggered by a gluten protein called gliadin. So scientists at the Institute for Sustainable Agriculture in Cordoba, Spain set out to extract the genes that code for gliadin proteins from wheat using the CRISPR-Cas9 gene modification technology—a powerful tool that works like a pair of "molecular scissors," snipping away at DNA sequences.
But getting rid of of the genes has been a hefty task. There are 45 copies of the gene for the main gliadin protein that causes symptoms in people with celiac disease; as Kristen V. Brown reports for Gizmodo, the team has been able to remove 35 of them thus far.
More gliadin genes will need to be removed before the modified wheat is ready for testing. But according to the study, published in the journal Plant Biotechnology, the findings show “gluten immunoreactivity can be significantly reduced” using CRISPR.
The proof of the experiment’s success is in the (bread) pudding. Jan Chojecki of the UK company PBL-Ventures, which is working to market products made with the new strain of wheat, told Le Page that while the modified wheat can’t be used to make big, sliced loaves of goodness, it does produce decent baguettes and rolls.
“It’s regarded as being pretty good, certainly better than anything on the gluten-free shelves,” Chojecki said.
Celiac disease affects as many as 1 in 100 people worldwide, and medical researchers are not entirely sure what causes it. Those who suffer from the condition usually have to cut gluten out of their diet entirely. If the CRISPR-modified wheat proves successful in trials, adhering to a strict gluten-free diet may eventually be a little bit easier.