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Researchers are once again trying to science the gluten out of bread

I used to work in an office where the majority of our team either had test-confirmed celiac disease, or through some form of self-reflection and personal experience had decided that they were gluten sensitive, so I have sympathy for those who are rightfully mistrustful of gluten.

At the same time, a while back I had a conversation with the futuristic novelist Daniel Suarez, who’s recently been grappling with the consequences of gene editing technology, also known as CRISPR.

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“Once a technology’s time has come, it’s going to happen. For instance, the Pandora’s box thing, you can’t put it back in,” Suarez told me. “The price point has come down to the degree that for less than $1,000, someone can set up a synthetic biology lab in their home.  What means is that we’re going to see ubiquitous, cheap genetic editing happening around the world. Human civilization has to grapple with that fact.”

Take, for example, what scientists are doing to your bread.

It came out last week in a Washington Post report that scores of researchers are investigating ways to make bread without side effects or potentially with health-enhancing elements using some new technologies that could turn out fine or lead to the zombie apocalypse.

The problem: Around 50 million Americans have irritable bowel syndrome (IBS), which has a bunch of unpleasant side effects and symptoms. The Post explains that one of the causes is food high in FODMAPs (that’s poorly absorbed fermentable carbs), the most common of which is wheat. The carbs in question in wheat are called fructans, which people with IBS have trouble digesting and which people who think they’re gluten-sensitive feel better when they don’t eat them.

There are a couple of initiatives to attack this dilemma, but we prefer to go straight to the scary one. The Post reports that the University of Minnesota has developed a reduced-gluten-wheat using gene-editing technology. Read: CRISPR (“clusters of regularly interspaced short palindromic repeats).

Before you freak out about GMO (genetically modified organisms), the technology that these scientists have employed is using gene-editing technology which doesn’t add any foreign genes into the mix. Basically, they’re modifying the celiac-triggering gene.

“We know which proteins in wheat create an immune response, so we delete those genes so it no longer makes the protein that causes the immunogenic response,” Dan Voytas, professor of genetics, cell biology, and development told the Post. “In our initial study, immune reaction was reduced by 85 percent.”

Other initiatives included in the Post’s report were an effort by Finnish company Fazer Mills to introduce an enzyme that can help lower the fructan content in wheat bread and help the body break down fructans into smaller units, which are reportedly gentler on the stomach. Meanwhile, European bakers are reportedly experimenting with tritordeum flour, a new hybrid of wheat and wild barley that yields 30 percent more fiber than traditional wheat flour. The Post reports that other bakers are adding fiber by blending traditional wheat flour with lupin bean or lentil flour.

Hang tight, all of you who have trust issue around toast or sandwiches. Science and farmers are delving into the problem with the best ideas we have to offer right now. But if that baguette starts talking or moving of its own accord, we’re going to have to revisit the whole gluten-free thing.

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