31st January 2019
Wheat grains contain gluten, a mixture of glutenin and gliadin proteins, which build a network that gives wheat bread its unique properties and quality. Most gliadins and part of the glutenins contain immunogenic epitopes, which are the actual trigger of the immune reaction. A gluten-free diet, excluding wheat, barley and rye, is currently the only remedy for coeliac patients. This diet is not easy to adhere to, partly because wheat gluten is added to many processed food products for their viscoelastic properties. In addition, gluten-free products typically require the inclusion of numerous additives to adjust their texture and taste, resulting in products that are often less healthy than gluten-based equivalents, and more expensive. Thus there is a need to develop healthier food products for coeliac patients.
Safe wheat: gluten-free or safe gluten
According to new research conducted by Aurélie Jouanin at Wageningen University & Research in the Netherlands and the National Institute of Agricultural Botany (NIAB) in the UK, one can now use CRISPR/Cas to remove all gluten genes, which would produce a gluten-free wheat. This would be interesting for many people who want to eat gluten-free, but it would have an inferior baking quality. In her PhD thesis, Jouanin also describes an alternative use of gene editing with CRISPR/Cas9 to precisely modify gliadin genes and strip them of immunogenic epitopes, to develop wheat with safe gluten. As a proof of principle she generated wheat plants in which some gliadin genes were modified or removed. These edited wheat plants are not yet safe for CD patients, as there is a large number of gluten genes present in wheat and not all gluten genes have been targeted. She has therefore also developed high-throughput methods to determine which genes have been modified and which remain to be edited in future steps towards a safe wheat variety.
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