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Genetically modified wheat gluten that can reduce sensitivity

Gluten-free diets are mostly a quack food fad for 99% of the population, but now we might have a genetically modified wheat that has modified gluten so that it doesn’t induce sensitivity. Scientists have developed some new strains of wheat that will produce a genetically modified gluten that may not trigger a gluten sensitivity.

Let’s wrap our minds around that – genetically modified wheat gluten. I’m sure that won’t be problematic for those who have medically diagnosed issues with gluten. They’re going to be thrilled that they can eat real bread, pizza, or pasta. I’m sure they’re not going to be concerned with any label that says “this product contains GMO gluten.”

Of course, the real scientific consensus about GMOs is that they are safe for humans, animals, and the environment. And provide humans with more and healthier food. Like genetically modified wheat gluten.

On the other hand, I’m certain (but I have no scientific evidence) that the Venn diagrams of those who buy into the nonsense about GMOs also buy into the pseudoscience of gluten. Those people might faint because of the irony of a GMO wheat gluten

Let’s take a look at gluten, the real medical issues of gluten sensitivity, and then what is this new genetically modified gluten in wheat. 

The Grocer's Encyclopedia (1911), a vintage collection of various types of baked bread loaves. Digitally enhanced from our own original plate.
Delicious bread.

What is wheat gluten?

Gluten is a protein found in wheat, along with similar proteins found in common grains such as barley and rye. Generally, we like gluten, because it gives elasticity to dough, allowing bread or pizza crust to have that chewy texture, which is one of the important considerations for a pleasurable food experience.

Biochemically, gliadins are the class of proteins that form parts of gluten. These proteins are essential for causing the bread to rise during baking. The three main types of gliadin (α, γ, and ω) generally cause the symptoms of celiac disease (discussed below).

Without trying to be a Food Network Star, gluten is critical in baking everything from bagels to cakes. Generally, kneading the dough forms long chain gluten protein molecules. And gluten makes up around 75-85% of the total protein in bread.

Additionally, pasta, pizza crust, and many other foods use high gluten flour that is worked hard to create longer chain gluten proteins. Believe it or not, good cooking involves intense knowledge of biochemistry.

Gluten can be removed from the milled flour, or it can be added back for high gluten flour. In another bit of irony, purified gluten, because of its texture, is actually used to create fake meat products, so beloved (or not) by vegans.

brown wheat under blue sky gluten
Photo by Pixabay on

So what is real gluten sensitivity?

There are generally two diagnosed medical conditions that cause people to be sensitive to gluten. The first condition is celiac disease (also known as coeliac disease in British English), which is an autoimmune disorder that afflicts the small intestine of certain individuals who are genetically predisposed to gluten sensitivity. The disease afflicts between 1 in 1,750 and 1 in 105 people in the United States (or about 0.05 to 1%), a tiny number.

For unknown reasons, the gliadins in the wheat gluten seem to induce an autoimmune attack. It is not gluten itself that causes it, it’s one component of the gluten proteins.

Celiac disease usually presents, but not always, with chronic diarrhea, low pediatric weight gain, and fatigue in response to gluten. In general, someone with celiac disease has a binary relationship with gluten – even a tiny amount causes the harsh symptoms. Unlike the fake gluten-sensitive people, who will often say that they can survive with a little gluten or can take a day off from their gluten-free diet, people with real celiac disease have to be obsessive about what’s in their food.

Although celiac disease is not completely understood, it appears that the immune system causes an inflammatory reaction of the lining of the small intestine in response to gluten. This interferes with the absorption of nutrients. The only known effective treatment is a lifelong gluten-free diet.

Ironically, with this popular gluten-free food fad, a lot of packaged foods are marked “gluten-free” which benefits those with real celiac disease. That’s a good thing.

The second scientifically based related condition is a medically diagnosed wheat allergy, which is also caused by a reaction to wheat proteins, which generally do not include gluten. However, there are over 20 different wheat proteins, only rarely gluten, that have been identified as causing wheat allergies. Finally, wheat allergies are extremely rare, and the gluten form of wheat allergies is so rare that it would take a huge population to detect it.

Outside of celiac disease and wheat allergies, both of which can be diagnosed objectively through comprehensive medical tests, there is a large group (by some reports, over 100 million Americans) who claim that they have some mysterious gluten sensitivity, which has a real name, non-celiac gluten sensitivity (NCGS). Like chronic Lyme disease, which is completely rejected by real medical science, there seems to be more non-medical advocacy for NCGS than found in the medical community.

However, there is some research into this potentially real or mythical condition, and there might be a small (smaller than the numbers for celiac disease or wheat allergy) number of people with a previously unknown type of gluten sensitivity, though a lot of scientists dispute it. The authors of the study on NCGS wrote that:

One of the most controversial and highly debated discussions concerns the role of gluten in causing NCGS. Recent reports have indicated that gluten might not be the cause of NCGS, and some investigators still question whether NCGS as a real clinical entity. (…) Cereals such as wheat and rye, when consumed in normal quantities, are only minor sources of FODMAPs (short chain carbohydrates and sugar alcohols) in the daily diet. Therefore, gluten-containing grains are not likely to induce IBS exclusively via FODMAPs. In contrast, there is growing evidence that other proteins that are unique to gluten-containing cereals can elicit an innate immune response that leads to NCGS, raising a nomenclature issue. For this reason, wheat sensitivity, rather than gluten sensitivity, seems to be a more appropriate term, keeping in mind that other gluten-containing grains such as barley and rye also can trigger the symptoms.

Think about this – humans have evolved with cereal grains for 20-30 thousand years, so in modern human evolution, those who couldn’t consume wheat would have had lower fitness, and natural selection would have preferred those without genes for gluten sensitivity. Thus, it is extraordinarily rare.

A belief that a huge number of Americans have some genetic mutation that causes some unknown gluten sensitivity boggles the mind – it’s just not biologically plausible. There are large clinical studies that are examining the issue, but it may take years to complete and read about the results. At that time, we may learn of another gluten sensitivity that is supported by real science-based medicine, but it will still be incredibly rare. Right now, all we have is anecdotes, which are never real scientific data.

There are dozens of myths about gluten. For example, some people believe that gluten causes autism, a slight improvement over the belief that vaccines cause autism. But real scientific evidence says there is no evidence of a link. In fact, there is significant evidence that reducing gluten in the diet may actually be unhealthy. So there’s that.

Creating gluten in bread. Photo by Nadya Spetnitskaya on Unsplash

Now, genetically modified gluten

In a new article by S Sánchez-León et al., published in Plant Biotechnology Journal, the researchers describe a genetic modification technique to remove 90% of the gliadins (which cause the symptoms of celiac disease) in wheat. They did this by adding genes that induce a process called RNA interference, a biological process in which RNA molecules inhibit gene expression or translation. This stops specific proteins, such as gliadins, from being made. As such, this will create a genetically modified form of gluten (lacking gliadins) which should not trigger celiac disease symptoms.

Unfortunately, the researchers were concerned that because some of the gliadin genes remained intact, it was possible that wheat could start making these proteins again. And as we mentioned above, gluten sensitivity for celiac disease patients is mostly binary, even a little gliadin in the gluten could cause the symptoms to explode.

The research team decided that it would be best to remove the genes entirely. They used a technique called CRISPR/Cas-9 gene-editing, a method to cut genes out of the genome. In this case, there are at least 45 copies of the gene for gliadin proteins – this is a huge task for gene editing. The paper reports that they have managed to delete 35 of the 45 genes.

Once again, this is great, but in the case of celiac disease, all 45 genes will have to be removed. So the CRISPR strain of wheat still requires more work before it’s available for broad clinical testing in real gluten-sensitive individuals. But the good news, after deleting 35 gliadin genes in the wheat, it still makes an acceptable bread. It can’t be used for making large sliced loaves of bread, but it can make baguettes and rolls. The reason for this is that the removal of the gliadins impacts the ability of larger loaves to rise appropriately.

There are small trials involving 10 and 20 people with celiac disease in Mexico and Spain who are consuming genetically modified wheat gluten bread. Early results showed that there was an improvement in the microbiota of the gut of celiac patients after consuming bread with the genetically modified wheat gluten.

But this isn’t the only research into genetically modified wheat gluten. Another group is researching another method to modify the gluten protein so that it is safe for consumption by those with celiac disease.

Working With Wheat Straw
Working With Wheat Straw by James T M Towill is licensed under CC-BY-SA 2.0

Conclusions about genetically modified gluten

Let me make some caveats. This biotechnology technique is only targeting gliadins, which are strongly implicated in celiac disease. It probably will have no effect on the tiny number of people with wheat allergies (where gluten is generally not implicated). It is unknown whether it would be helpful to the tiny number of individuals with non-celiac gluten sensitivity.

Of course, some people with real gluten sensitivity will reject genetically modified gluten right out of hand. And of course, I believe those that jump on the gluten-free fad, without any medical justification, will reject GMOs because they support nearly every woo-based food fad.

But for those who have a real gluten sensitivity, this could be a huge godsend. Right now, there are gluten-free bread, but they lack the texture and taste of real bread. This genetically modified gluten wheat can be used to make many foods that need gluten for proper texture and taste. Pasta, bread, bagels, cakes, and many other flour-based foods could benefit from this genetically modified gluten.

With this genetically modified gluten wheat strain, those with celiac disease will have access to better-tasting foods. And that helps them maintain their diet. This is a boon for every individual with a real, diagnosed gluten sensitivity.


Michael Simpson

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