Using CRISPR to create gluten-free wheat

To most people going gluten-free is a health fad, like acai berries and kale smoothies – but for some it is a necessity. 1 in every 100 people in the UK have coeliac disease, an autoimmune condition that affects the gut. The body’s immune system identifies gluten as a threat and attacks, damaging the small intestine and causing abdominal pain and indigestion. With continued gluten consumption, coeliac patients may develop more serious symptoms such as anaemia and osteoporosis.

Most coeliacs live on a gluten-free diet,  although maybe with the occasional slip up. Who can blame them? “Cinnamon Grahams are my weakness,” says Sid, 3rd year mathematician, and coeliac sufferer. Not only is gluten in staples such as cereal, bread and pasta, it is also in a wide range of surprising foods like soup and crisps. Gluten-free food, like gluten-free bread, is expensive and  often a poor imitation of the original. As gluten is the component that holds baked goods together, gluten-free versions are often crumbly and disappointing.

Surprisingly it is CRISPR – the most recent breakthrough in genome editing – that is coming to the rescue. CRISPR can be used to alter the genetic code at specific areas of the genome. It’s most astounding achievements to date include the creation of malaria-resistant mosquitoes, and the treatment of muscular dystrophy in mice.

Now researchers at the Institute for Sustainable Agriculture in Cordoba, Spain have used the revolutionary technique to create strains of gluten-free wheat. Gliadins are the main gluten proteins which trigger an autoimmune reaction in coeliacs. Headed by Dr Francisco Barro Losada, the research group have used CRISPR to inactivate 35 of the 45 gliadin-associated genes in wheat. While this low-gluten wheat is not yet ready for consumption by those with coeliac disease, the team are working on finding and disabling the remaining 10 genes.

The hope is that in future these strains may lead to a substantial upsurge in the manufacturing and quality of gluten-free products – much to the relief of the millions following gluten-free diets.