Numerous times we have heard of gluten free diet suggestions. But What is Gluten ? And how important is it to stick to a diet free of gluten? 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. 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.
People who are forced to avoid gluten could soon have their bread (and cake) and eat it. Scientists are focusing to provide us, not gluten free diet, but gluten free wheat. Now there are strains of wheat that do not produce the forms of gluten that trigger a dangerous immune reaction in as many as 1 in 100 people. Because not all gluten proteins trigger negative response, the main culprit is a group called gliadins. So Francisco Barro’s team at the Institute for Sustainable Agriculture in Cordoba, Spain, set about getting rid of them to have a perfect wheat type.
They used a genetic modification technique to remove 90 per cent of the gliadins in wheat and they did this 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.
Because the new strains still contain some kinds of gluten, though, the wheat can still be used to bake bread. “It’s regarded as being pretty good, certainly better than anything on the gluten-free shelves,” says Jan Chojecki of PBL-Ventures in the UK, who is working with investors in North America to market products made with this wheat.
Barro’s team next tried using CRISPR gene-editing to get rid of the genes entirely. This is a huge task because there are no fewer than 45 copies of the gene for the main gliadin protein that causes problems. Nevertheless, Barro’s team report that they have already 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. Small trials of the GM wheat involving 10 and 20 people with coeliac disease are already being carried out in Mexico and Spain. Though this is a great substitute for the gluten free diet, but then again, many people might have problem with its authentication and safety for being genetically modified crop.