Editing genes for 'gluten safe' wheat

A European agricultural university is working to produce what it describes as "gluten safe" wheat. U.S. Wheat Associates, which develops export markets for the U.S. wheat, welcomes the work -- but with reservations. Wageningen University, located...

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A European agricultural university is working to produce what it describes as "gluten safe" wheat. U.S. Wheat Associates, which develops export markets for the U.S. wheat, welcomes the work - but with reservations.

Wageningen University, located in the Netherlands and described by U.S. Wheat Associates as "one of the top agricultural universities in the world," recently announced that one of its researchers is using gene editing to produce gluten safe wheat that can be eaten by people with celiac disease.

Though all gluten genes can be removed from wheat, doing so hurts baking quality and wheat-food products. Putting special additives in these gluten-free products, to adjust their texture and taste, makes the products more expensive and "often less healthy than gluten-based equivalents," according to information from Wageningen University.

So, research by Wageningen doctoral candidate Aurélie Jouanin has focused on modifying specific wheat genes to produce wheat with safe gluten that does not cause an allergic reaction - i.e., gluten safe, not gluten free.

"These edited wheat plants are not yet safe for CD (celiac disease) patients" because wheat has many gluten genes and not all those genes have been targeted by the research. But Jouanin has developed methods to determine which genes still need to be edited to produce gluten safe wheat, according to Wageningen University.


U.S. Wheat Associates, in its electronic newsletter, said that Jouanin's research "is only one of many exciting research projects around the world using plant breeding innovation."

But the new technology "also needs to be paired with consumer engagement and smart trade decisions" and to be used "in breeding for everyone along the supply chain, from farmers to international customers to consumers," U.S. Wheat Associates said.

Celiac disease

Celiac disease, also known as gluten intolerance, prevents people from digesting gluten normally. Gluten is a protein found in wheat, barley, rye and other grains. The condition damages the surface of the small intestines and blocks the ability to absorb certain nutrients.

Estimates of the number of Americans with celiac disease vary, with some as high as 3 million and others much lower. Some people - the number is unclear - also have a condition called non-celiac gluten sensitivity, in which gluten causes some symptoms even though celiac disease isn't present.

Whatever the the actual number of people with celiac disease or non-celiac gluten sensitivity, they're exceeded by the number of Americans who are wary of eating gluten. Twenty-one percent of people surveyed say they "actively try to include gluten-free foods in their diet," according to a 2015 Gallup Poll. Other surveys estimate that roughly one in three Americans are trying to cut back or eliminate gluten from their diet.

But a major study, published last year, the British Medical Journal, found that gluten-free diets could increase the risk of heart attack for people who don't have celiac disease.

Even so, public concern over gluten and celiac disease is troubling for farmers who raise wheat, especially in North Dakota, which typically leads the nation in production of hard red spring wheat, prized by millers for its gluten strength.


Potentially, wheat that's been genetically edited for people with celiac disease could fetch a premium over other wheat, said Erica Olson, market development and research manager for the North Dakota Wheat Commission.

She's also a past chairwoman of the national Wheat Foods Council. The organization, which consists of groups and businesses that raise, mill, bake and sell wheat or wheat products, bills itself as a leading source of science-based information on wheat and wheat foods nutrition.

Research involving wheat and gluten safety is underway at a number of locations, including Kansas, Olson said.

To learn more about the research in Kansas:

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Read the written statement from Wageningan University: .

Related Topics: WHEAT
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