At its roots, research is aimed at solving problems. In agriculture, those problems can range from small to large.
Among the largest problems facing wheat producers and those who use wheat in their products are celiac disease and gluten intolerance.
In a sense, solving this problem is the Holy Grail of wheat-related research.
Celiac disease prevents those who have it from digesting gluten, which is found in varying amounts in grains such as wheat, barley and rye. The disease is found in millions of Americans and causes the body’s immune system to react and for sufferers to experience nausea, cramps and other health problems.
In addition to those who have been diagnosed with celiac disease, other people are sensitive to gluten. This sensitivity causes a variety of symptoms similar to those of celiac disease.
The controversy surrounding gluten and who can and cannot eat it has spread around the world. Nowadays, restaurants and grocery stores domestically and abroad offer items that are “gluten free.”
To many consumers, “gluten” has become a four-letter word. To wheat farmers, it has become a cause for concern and has cut into the demand for their crop.
During the past few weeks, however, researchers have announced breakthroughs that could mean celiac patients and others may one day be able to enjoy bread, cakes, crackers or any other foods made with wheat and not have to worry about their reaction to gluten.
Sachin Rustgi, a researcher at Clemson University in South Carolina and Washington State University, has been developing wheat that changes the way people digest gluten. Working in concert with scientists in France, China and Chile, he was able to insert DNA from barley and a bacterium into wheat so it creates enzymes that break down gluten.
The tactic is similar to the one used by many celiac sufferers, who take an enzyme pill before every meal to avoid problems.
“By packing the remedy to wheat allergies and gluten intolerance right into the grain, we’re giving consumers a simpler, lower‑cost therapy,” he said in a WSU press release.
Using a gene-editing technique called CRISPR, he also hopes to develop wheat varieties that have no gluten at all. CRISPR technology allows researchers to edit wheat’s DNA and doesn’t involve adding DNA from other organisms.
Other researchers in diverse places such as Kansas and the Netherlands are also working on gluten-free wheat.
These developments are still years from the marketplace. They need to be thoroughly tested before the USDA or other agencies will approve them. Even then, they must meet the expectations of consumers, who must understand and embrace the benefits of wheat that even celiac sufferers can eat without fear of getting sick.
We have long voiced our support for all types of research. In this case, it appears researchers are on the verge of breakthroughs that will profoundly impact consumers and farmers, benefitting both.
That type of research will ultimately have a return whose value cannot be measured in dollars.