The future of food: from jellyfish salad to lab-grown meat
Published September 13, 2015 in the UK Guardian
Writer Nicola Davis
Below is an excerpt from the article:
If there’s one commodity the food industry could be expected to shell out for, it’s hypoallergenic peanuts. An estimated 1.4-3.0% of children in western countries are allergic to them, putting the kibosh on the consumption of a host of comestibles. But if a small startup has its way, that could all change.
University of Toronto graduates Chloe Gui and Terry Huang are hoping to create peanuts that are free from specific proteins that trigger potentially life-threatening reactions in humans.
It’s a fledgling enterprise – after creating their company, Aranex Biotech, in April, Gui and Huang moved to Ireland to take part in Indie.bio’s three-month synthetic biology accelerator programme hosted at University College, Cork. Their plan – to use a genome editing technique called Crispr-Cas9 to essentially “turn off” the genes that code for main peanut allergens. It’s a technology that grabbed the headlines this year when the Crispr-Cas9 system was used by scientists to edit the genomes of human embryos.
So far Gui and Huang have taken cells from the leaves of peanut plants, removed the cell walls using an enzyme and then inserted the Crispr-Cas9 system by chemical means. Their results, says Gui, are promising – but there is a long way to go – to create whole plant the team must use a different method of inserting Crispr-Cas9 into plant cells and are currently planning to utilise a soil bacterium. “We are at the stage where we know Crispr works in peanut plants, now we want to regenerate a full plant,” says Gui, adding that the duo are now looking to establish themselves in Norwich, a hub for plant science.
It’s not the first attempt to find a solution to the issue of peanut allergies. Scientists have explored several GM techniques, including interfering with cellular processes that generate the problem proteins, while non-GM approaches include soaking peanuts in enzymes that break down the allergens. But using Crispr-Cas9, Gui believes, could be an effective alternative. Others agree “Scientifically, yes it is feasible,” says Professor Peggy Ozias-Akins from the University of Georgia, who has conducted previous work on hypoallergenic peanuts. But, she adds, that there could be other complications. “As far as how a peanut deficient in these proteins would actually be utilised by industry is less well defined at this point.”
According to Gui, heavyweight confectioners have already pricked up their ears, keen to see the work develop. But she says there will be hurdles to overcome, not least that it is unlikely to be possible to turn off all the genes for all known peanut allergens. “You have to balance how many genes you can knock out while maintaining the viability of the plant,” she says. And even if the team manages to produce hypoallergenic peanuts, the problem of perception remains — Gui and Huang are keen to avoid the GM label, meaning they are simultaneously looking to explore a range of routes to their proof of concept plant.
It’s a project that will take time, but Gui is enthusiastic. “It’s never been a better time to do this sort of thing,” she says.