Series Blog #3: Wheat Could Soon Be Gluten Free (Through Gene Editing)

By NAWG Summer 2019 Intern Merrick Irvin

According to WebMD, about 1 in 100 people worldwide has celiac disease. “The only treatment is a gluten-free diet. When someone with celiac disease eats even tiny amounts of gluten, their immune system attacks the the lining of the small intestine. This can lead to malnutrition.” Therefore, many of these individuals seek out alternatives to gluten products as well as stay vigorous on preventing cross contamination from food containing gluten. In this third blog of our five-part series, which looks at the progression of gene editing and technology on wheat, we will explore the current research being conducted to make a low-gluten variety of wheat.

What is Celiac-Disease?
Gluten is a general name for the proteins found in wheat (wheatberries, durum, emmer, semolina, spelt, farina, farro, graham, KAMUT® khorasan wheat and einkorn), rye, barley and triticale – a cross between wheat and rye. Gluten helps foods maintain their shape, acting as a glue that holds food together.

If a person has Celiac disease, eating foods that contain gluten may cause damage to the lining of the small intestine and possibly hinder absorption of nutrients. Possible symptoms of gluten intolerance include abdominal pain, bowel movement issues, bloating, and fatigue.

New Wheat Varieties May be the Solution
Dr. Chris Miller at Kansas State University is currently researching what wheat varieties that naturally have low levels of reactivity with individuals with a gluten intolerance. By finding a wheat variety that already has low reactivity with gluten intolerant individuals, an ideal starting material can be utilized to reduce gluten content through breeding and gene editing technology.

Each person reacts to gluten differently and is categorized under a spectrum disorder. Some only experience mild abdominal pain or an upset stomach, while others require a trip to the hospital after ingestion of gluten. Everyone’s immune system antibodies react to different proteins in different ways, making categorizing reactions difficult.

Luckily, new wheat varieties have been found that vastly reduce the amount of gliadin, a component of gluten and main cause of intolerance, where about 97% of the gliadin content is removed. While not all gluten components have been removed, decreasing reactions to gluten is a major step in the right direction. Decreasing the reactivity where a stomachache is experienced rather than a trip to the hospital when a gluten intolerant individual consumes foods containing gluten.

The Future of a Wheat Variety Without Gluten
Dr. Miller’s work may lead us down the pathway of obtaining a celiac-safe wheat variety. The research being conducted shows bright futures for those who must constantly avoid products that contain gluten. Wheat has been gathered and cultivated by humans for thousands of years, and through gene editing even those with Celiac can soon enjoy this crop which is vital for a healthy diet.

Stay tuned for my next blog covering gene editing benefits for the wheat industry. And, if you have not already, check out my first and second blog post of the five-part series covering The History of Wheat and Its Future and The Science Behind Gene Editing.

Sources

Debes, Julia. “Creating a Celiac-Safe Wheat: Part 1.” Kansas Wheat, Kansas Wheat Commission and Kansas Association of Wheat Growers, 7 Oct. 2014, kswheat.com/creating-a-celiac-safe-wheat-part-1.

Niland, Benjamin, and Brooks D Cash. “Health Benefits and Adverse Effects of a Gluten-Free Diet in Non-Celiac Disease Patients.” Gastroenterology & Hepatology, Millennium Medical Publishing, Feb. 2018, www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5866307/.

Taylor, Steve L., and Robert Wager. “Gluten-Free Wheat May Change Bread.” Best Food Facts, Best Food Facts, 2 Nov. 2017, www.bestfoodfacts.org/gluten-free-wheat-may-be-possible/.

What is Gluten? (n.d.). Retrieved July 17, 2019, from https://celiac.org/gluten-free-living/what-is-gluten/.