By MATTHEW WEAVER
Washington State University researcher Diter von Wettstein is pursuing two ventures that could boost markets for wheat and barley.
Von Wettstein is working to develop nutritionally improved, celiac-safe wheat cultivars and breeding barley cultivars for the Pacific Northwest that would be resistant to the herbicide imidazolinone, commonly used by farmers.
Von Wettstein said he has wheat lines where he's obtained a 76.4 percent reduction in the accumulation of the key gluten proteins. The next step is silencing the remaining percentage.
Rich Koenig, associate dean and director of WSU Extension, said the wheat project involves removing the gluten material that causes the adverse reaction in people who have celiac disease. The National Institutes of Health and Washington State's Life Science Discovery Fund have provided funding for von Wettstein's research.
"It's clearly a human health issue," Koenig said. "A lot of people are gluten-intolerant. It would really be a boon if he could solve that problem, at least for that subset of people who can't eat wheat because of the gluten."
Von Wettstein is working on the project using two strategies, one that would be genetically modified and one that would be non-genetically modified, Koenig said.
"Obviously, if he could do it without it being a GM organism, that would be better," Koenig said. "But in the end, if the only way to do this is through genetic modification of wheat, it could still be a major advancement for people who suffer from that disease."
The projects may still take a while as von Wettstein works to identify, selectively silence and remove the responsible genes.
"In order to make bread from wheat, you still have to have some of those properties," Koenig said. "The key is, how do you remove the genes that create the proteins that cause the adverse reaction in a celiac patient but still leave the genes that allow you to bake a loaf of bread with wheat flour?"
Wheat flour from the plants von Wettstein is developing likely would not be suitable for all wheat flour uses, he said.
But it would be an important subsection of wheat production, Koenig said, developing products specifically for people with celiac disease.
Koenig is impressed by the work von Wettstein has done so far, noting celiac disease affects tens of millions of people worldwide. Solving the problem by creating a product they can consume might lead
"I think in the last 10 years it's been Diter's life goal to be able to develop this wheat," Koenig said. "He's getting very close."
Von Wettstein's barley research is a continuation of the development of an imidazolinone-tolerant barley through mutation breeding by retired WSU barley breeder Steve Ullrich. It's not a genetically modified organism, and is similar to Clearfield wheat, which is also tolerant to imidazolinone, Rich Koenig said. Ullrich developed one of the first tolerant barley lines, which is in the background of the barley variety Bob.
Von Wettstein is putting the trait into other barley varieties. Koenig said it potentially expands the acreage of barley that could be planted on fields with the herbicide. Currently there are restrictions that prohibit planting barley after use of the the chemical.
The herbicide remains in the soil and kills the germinating barley, von Wettstein said. A WSU Ph.D. student isolated a barley mutant to provide resistance to the chemical, he said, but its agronomic performance and yield must be improved by crossing it with high quality food, feed and malting barleys.