Recent gene editing discovery could make gluten safe for all consumers

When we think of gene editing, our minds might go to stories of giving new traits to humans, or editing animals to be more disease-resistant. We might not think of plants, first. But the reality is, gene-editing in plants could have some of the more practical and important applications in the future, better positioning our food supply to feed a growing global population.

Researchers from Wageningen University in The Netherlands have used modern gene-editing techniques to make gluten safely edible to people with gluten intolerances.

The team of scientists used a technique called CRISPR/Cas9 to destroy the damaging antigens of gluten, the epitopes. They’ve managed to do so without compromising the genes that allow gluten’s role in making baked goods.

“Not all of these genes have the toxic epitopes and with this new CRISPR/Cas9 technique it’s possible to remove part of them and leave the non-toxic ones,” said researcher Jan Schaart.

Bread wheat’s genome, the entirety of its DNA, is about five times larger than that of a human being’s. The genes for gluten are located in multiple places, making targeting them difficult.

Though the discovery is years away from commercial applications, it could one day make life easier for people who shouldn’t consume gluten, including those who suffer from celiac disease. Studies have shown that even those who pursue stringent gluten-free diets still aren’t protected entirely from gluten residues in food. Eliminating the potential harm in the first place could protect the public.

How it works

CRISPR stands for clustered regularly interspaced short palindromic repeats, and Cas9 refers to an enzyme used in the process.

This technology was inspired by a process found in nature. In the natural process, bacteria capture snippets of DNA from invading viruses, and use them to create entirely new DNA segments. These segments allow bacteria to “remember” the viruses that have attacked them before, so if it happens again, the bacteria can produce RNA segments to target the enemy virus DNA. The bacteria then uses the Cas9 enzyme, or a similar enzyme, to halt the invading DNA.

In the lab, scientists create an RNA segment with a built-in “guide” DNA sequence. The guide sequence binds to a targeted DNA sequence in a specific genome, as well as the Cas9 enzyme. That modified RNA recognizes the DNA segment, and Cas9 cuts the DNA at the targeted location. At this point, scientists take advantage of the cell’s natural ability to repair DNA in order to add, delete, or modify segments of genetic material.

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