Gene editing opens up a whole world of possibilities, from eliminating malaria to combating chronic disease. But for Francisco Barro Losada, a Spanish plant scientist working on developing gluten-free wheat, the potential benefits of gene editing are much more down to earth.
“Everyone knows celiac people, and celiacs know that gluten-free bread is not as good as other gluten-free products,” Barro said in a recent interview. “I think that for a celiac to enjoy good bread, made of wheat, with the taste of wheat, the aroma of wheat, it would be something really amazing.”
This is where Barro hopes his research can make a difference. While gluten proteins are dangerous to celiacs, they do play an important role in giving bread its characteristic texture and taste. Barro is using the precise techniques of gene editing to remove only the gluten proteins from wheat, which would result in a superior bread product for those who seek to avoid gluten.
Celiac disease affects an estimated 1 in 100 people worldwide. Celiacs experience an immune reaction to gluten that destroys the lining of the small intestine, which can lead to a number of other health problems. Currently, the only way to manage the symptoms of celiac disease is to follow a diet that eliminates products that contain gluten: meaning anything with wheat, rye and barley is out.
Gluten-free wheat is just one example of how gene editing techniques like CRISPR could lead to more consumer-friendly, beneficial scientific innovations in food.
“We need more examples where the science is close to the consumer,” Barro explained. “They can clearly see that big companies can get a lot of money, but they can’t see the benefit to their own lives. But with a product like gluten-free wheat, it’s easy for everyone to see the impact. Everyone knows someone who could benefit from this.”
Barro believes that making regulations less prohibitive will be key to allowing more small companies to go to market with products featuring new crop traits developed with consumers in mind.
The US Department of Agriculture has stated that it will not impose new regulations on gene-edited crops, but the EU has yet to come to a consensus on how exactly gene-edited crops will be treated within its member nations.
Besides more consumer-oriented products, Barro thinks there is still a lot to explore with CRISPR, and he sees two major trends in its use in plants. Some applications will focus on using CRISPR to delete or turn on specific genes to achieve outcomes, such as improving disease resistance or reducing the production of specific enzymes. This is what researchers at Penn State have done to develop non-browning mushrooms. More complex projects may involve using gene editing to tweak plant functions, such as nitrogen fixation or photosynthesis.
“If you think about what agriculture is, what farmers have been doing, it is to find out what plants need to grow better, to produce better grains, better bread,” Barro said. “We have spent thousands of years doing this. Even technology like CRISPR is not really creating something new. These processes were already occurring in nature. We’ve just learned how to replicate them.”