In Search of Gluten-Free Wheat

Wheat farmers seek gluten-free wheat. altrendo images/Getty Images

Researchers in Kansas are sorting through more than 300 different strains of wheat in an attempt to identify the least gluten-toxic varieties and ultimately, they say, breed a new form of wheat that's safe for people with celiac disease.

Their research will test each strain with human antibodies in a test tube solution to see how strong a reaction the strain produces. Biochemist Chris Miller, Ph.D., lead researcher at Engrain, a Manhattan, Kansas-based commercial product laboratory, hopes to identify all the potentially problematic protein fragments in wheat.

Miller will focus on four different categories of wheat strains: currently planted Kansas wheat varieties, historically popular wheat varieties, new experimental wheat lines and wild wheat relatives.

The study is funded by $200,000 in seed money from the Kansas Wheat Commission, which no doubt is eyeing recent declines in wheat sales that some have credited to the rise in popularity of the gluten-free diet.

Less Toxic Wheat May Be Possible

There's evidence that certain strains of wheat may be less toxic than others to people with celiac disease and non-celiac gluten sensitivity. For example, some people have reported consuming ancient grains like Einkorn wheat with little to no reaction, although experts warn that these grains still contain some problematic gluten proteins.

Miller plans to use a biochemical process called immunoprecipitation to test individual gluten protein fragments from the different wheat strands.

In this process, human antibodies to gluten are affixed to to a surface, and the proteins from a single type of wheat are washed over that surface. The reactive proteins stick to the surface while the harmless proteins wash off.

Then, the researchers can use DNA sequencing to identify and catalog the reactive proteins.

Ultimately, Miller intends to rank each wheat cultivar based how large (or small) a reaction it causes. 

The goal, according to the Kansas Wheat Commission, is to create "the most comprehensive study of wheat proteins related to celiac disease ever published."

Of course, identifying and then breeding out the problematic gluten proteins may not solve the entire problem: there's evidence that people with celiac disease react to more than just the gluten in wheat. And, since it's gluten that gives wheat the unique characteristics that make it so useful in baking and cooking, eliminating those toxic proteins may eliminate some or all of those useful characteristics, too.

But the research project definitely will contribute to the body of knowledge on gluten-induced disorders, and ultimately could result in better raw ingredients coming out of Kansas wheat fields ... which is a good thing.

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