Genetically modified foods are becoming more popular in the news as they become more prevalent in our society.  The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has defined GM foods or GMOs (Genetically Modified Organisms) as crop plants created for human or animal consumption using the latest molecular biology techniques.  These plants are modified in a laboratory to add nutritional value and/or enhance their most desired traits.
Wheat1.jpgGenetic engineering can create plants with the exact results aimed for very rapidly and with great precision.  Genes can be transferred from one plant to another, or from non-plant organisms to plants.
The advantages of genetically modified foods range from pest resistance, disease resistance, herbicide tolerance, cold tolerance, drought tolerance, improved nutrition, and pharmaceutical uses.  All over the world, research is being conducted to create genetically modified foods.
Dr. Diter von Wettstein, R.A. Nilan Distinguished Professor in the Department of Crop and Soil Sciences and the School of Molecular Biosciences at Washington State University, received grants totaling nearly $2 million from the National Institutes of Health and Washington’s Life Sciences Discovery Fund in 2008 and 2009.  Wettstein was awarded the grants to advance his research to develop wheat varieties safe to eat by people with celiac disease.
Celiac disease is a digestive condition triggered by the consumption of protein gluten, which is found in a wide variety of breads, cookies, pasta, and many other foods containing barley, rye, or wheat.  Individuals with celiac disease who consume gluten over a long period of time suffer damage to the small intestine, resulting in interference with the absorption of nutrients from food.  Malnutrition can result.
Dr. von Wettstein’s research focuses on removing the gliadins and gliadin-type prolamins from the gluten protein in wheat.  It is the gliadins that specifically cannot be digested by individuals with celiac disease; they eventually cross the intestinal wall, causing a damaging T-cell response to the intestinal lining.
Currently, there is no cure for celiac disease and the only treatment is to adopt a gluten-free diet; this includes eliminating all barley, rye, and wheat-based foods.  Making this diet much more difficult to maintain, gluten is also used as a filler or binder in many additional food and non-food items that one would not expect.  These items range from deli meats to medicines, vitamins, beer, licorice, and the adhesive on stamps and envelopes.
“Medical experts at the National Institutes of Health have declared urgency in dealing with celiac disease, the most common food-sensitive intestinal condition in humans, and require faster and more decisive methods such as transgenic breeding, in which genes are transferred from different species,” said Dr. von Wettstein, a member of the National Academy of Sciences.
Dr. von Wettstein and his team have identified a fully viable, lysine-rich barley mutant that lacks the gliadin-type and low-molecular-weight glutenins that are currently shown to be exclusively responsible for dough elasticity and exceptional baking quality.  Using genetic methods to remove the celiac-causing gliadins and low-molecular glutenins, Dr. von Wettstein’s task is to produce a similar wheat grain while preserving wheat’s baking qualities.
As an extra asset, the resulting grain will contain more lysine; an amino acid essential for an optimal diet that is usually deficient in wheat.
“Creating new cultivars of wheat, arguably the most important crop grown, having increased lysine and lacking gliadins will be of tremendous benefit not only for sufferers of celiac disease, but for all consumers of wheat and wheat products,” said von Wettstein.
Dr. von Wettstein and his team have partnered with the Seattle-based biotechnology company Arcadia Biosciences to screen large populations of wheat, to be able to identify gene mutants that affect the celiac-triggering protein types.