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  • Jefferson Adams
    Jefferson Adams

    Can Scientists Find Acceptance for GMO Gluten-Free Wheat?

    Reviewed and edited by a celiac disease expert.

      Will people buy GMO gluten-free wheat? The people developing it think so.


    Caption: Photo: CC--Brad Higham

    Celiac.com 01/08/2018 - Imagine gluten-free wheat. Well, actually you don't have to imagine it, because a group of scientists has used a gene-editing technique called CRISPR/Cas9 to cut selected genes from a wheat genome, and presto, gluten-free wheat is a thing.

    As people in numerous countries debate genetically modified crops, some countries, including France and Germany, have passed laws to prohibit their cultivation.

    Remember, we're not talking about hybridization here, which is based on natural selection and works by interbreeding plant strains. Researchers have used hybridization to develop strains of wheat that are low in gluten, but so far no one has made a strain that is entirely free of gluten.

    In this case, we're talking about genetic modification; changing the basic genetic structure of the plant. The greatest objections around GMO practices have been focused on the insertion of DNA from one species into another species, says Francisco Barro, a plant biotechnologist at the Institute for Sustainable Agriculture in Spain.

    To steer clear of this genetic process, Barro and his team used the gene-editing technique CRISPR/Cas9 to remove certain genes from a wheat genome. Their team focused on alpha-gliadins, gluten proteins that are thought to be the trigger for immune system reactions in people with celiac disease and gluten sensitivity.

    To accomplish their goal of removing the culprit gene(s), the research team used the scissorlike Cas9 protein to cut out 35 of the 45 alpha-gliadin genes. Lab tests showed that the new wheat strain reduced the immune response by 85 percent, the team reported.

    Far from being any kind of decisive breakthrough though, this is just one “really important step in maybe producing something that is going to be incredibly useful,” says Wendy Harwood, a crop geneticist at the John Innes Center in England.

    Meanwhile, Barro says his team is working on targeting more gluten-triggered genes to develop a completely safe strain of wheat for celiac patients.

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    Once again, I have to point out the overwhelming ignorance of "scientists". Dr. Tom O'Bryan has switched from talking about "gluten sensitivity" to "wheat sensitivity" after researchers at Columbia University have identified five more categories of proteins in wheat that celiacs react to, in addition to prolamins and glutelins as gliadin and glutenin. My diagnosing physician has told me that someone born with celiac disease but not diagnosed until late in adulthood will react to every part of wheat and many things that the patient ate with wheat. She said that there is a "Pavlov's dog" effect on the immune system. And in view of the mistake at the General Mills factory of using wheat flour in Cheerios, how can anybody trust that gluten-free wheat will be used instead of regular wheat. And how can you think that gluten-free wheat will not be cross-pollinated by regular wheat? And what good will gluten-free wheat be to anyone? It will just be gross cardboard dust.

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    My father was a chemist and one of my brother's worked with scientists who were developing GMO grains 30 years ago. I don't have the 'GMOs are dangerous and scary' mindset. I am totally in favor of science finding solutions to my health issues. It is true that "gluten sensitivity", "gluten allergy", and "wheat sensitivity" are different things, so this particular breakthrough may not help every gluten sensitive person, but I believe that it is a step in the right direction.

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    Thanks for this article. I think we're wasting the potential of GMO foods on things like Roundup Ready Corn. I would be in favor of gluten-free wheat, but this article says it reduces the response by 85%. That may not be enough for those who already have it. It might be better as a preventative to reduce the incidence of celiac disease in those who haven't developed it yet. If it were adopted as the wheat used in processed foods, then it could potentially do a world of good to everyone by not exposing them and not sensitizing them in the first place. I think that for me, I am too far gone to be helped, but I'd love to imagine a future for my family in which they have never heard of celiac. To do that, it will also be necessary to make gluten-free barley and rye, and possibly oats. Oats are still in the gray area of gluten-free because some people react to avenin. If embraced, this could really give us a better future.

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    And what exactly would be the use of gluten-free wheat? Without gluten, it won't be any better in making bread and pastry than any other naturally gluten-free grains. Try making bread with wheat strains that only contain 3% of gluten and you will see for yourself, and I assume that is still way more gluten than the gluten-free would have. Another issue will be to keep the crop uncontaminated because it will probably look the same as regular wheat, maybe adding a gene to make it resistant to some herbicide will solve that? Yummy. Not worth the effort.

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  • About Me

    Jefferson Adams is Celiac.com's senior writer and Digital Content Director. He earned his B.A. and M.F.A. at Arizona State University, and has authored more than 2,000 articles on celiac disease. His coursework includes studies in science, scientific methodology, biology, anatomy, medicine, logic, and advanced research. He previously served as SF Health News Examiner for Examiner.com, and devised health and medical content for Sharecare.com. Jefferson has spoken about celiac disease to the media, including an appearance on the KQED radio show Forum, and is the editor of the book "Cereal Killers" by Scott Adams and Ron Hoggan, Ed.D.

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