About 10,000 years ago Earth's climate lurched from bitter Ice Age conditions to the much balmier time in which we live today. We don't fully understand what caused that great climate shift, but we know it was near the time of that great temperature transition that people started to farm. And one of the crops people in some parts of the world learned to tend was wheat.
In the Western world, our love affair with wheat is as intense as it is old. Peasants have lived on bread and not much else, and even those of us with a grocery store full of options at our disposal are likely to have at least some wheat-products each day.
Unfortunately, about 2 percent of Americans suffer from celiac disease, a malady triggered by gluten proteins such as those found in wheat. It's a serious condition that erodes necessary structures in the intestines called microvilli. Symptoms of celiac disorder range from things like diarrhea to long-term malnutrition because nutrients are not absorbed and transferred to the bloodstream as they should be.
The only treatment for celiac disease is to avoid eating gluten. That's a tall order because wheat and wheat by-products are in a wide variety of foods. To avoid eating any wheat requires constant vigilance and a lot of home-cooking. That's why it would be ideal if new wheat strains could be developed that didn't contain the proteins that cause the malady in the first place.
Enter Professor Diter von Wettstein of Washington State University. Von Wettstein came to this country from Denmark in 1996 when regulations there forced him to retire owing to age. Here in the land of the free, von Wettstein can pursue research into wheat strains and celiac disease.
"Retirement should mean you get to do what you think is fun," he said to me recently. "I think research is fun."
At age 82 von Wettstein shows no sign of slowing down. In addition to running a research laboratory of seven, he returns to Europe from time to time to see his family - and ski in Austria.
"I had to give up downhill skiing," he said with regret. "Too many surgeries on my hip. But I still do cross-country."
Like many serious research groups in this country, von Wettstein's research lab is highly international. The team includes men and women from China, Chile and Ghana. The group is hard at work on changing wheat so that it won't cause celiac disease.
Wheat is full of a mixture of proteins, a number of which can cause problems in people with celiac. Six proteins are needed for giving bread its baking properties, but about 150 proteins are not needed. Using advanced genetic techniques, von Wettstein and his team are shaping wheat strains to have fewer and fewer of the problematic proteins.
At the moment there's winter wheat growing on an experimental farm not far from where I work that has 60 to 70 percent of the proteins that attack the microvilli "silenced." Von Wettstein is confident that in time that proportion will reach 100 percent.
"I wouldn't work on this problem if I didn't think we could solve it," he said.
There are some other potential avenues of research being explored that could help celiac sufferers. One is to find an enzyme that would break down the problematic proteins while food was still in the stomach. Von Wettstein's group is looking for enzymes that could be added to bread before it's baked. If the enzymes withstood the temperature of baking in an oven, then they could go to work in the stomach where celiac patients don't have problems, sparing the crucial intestines.
We've had a long and wondrous love-affair with wheat. For myself, it's tough to imagine what celiac sufferers live with each day. Here's hoping that with some further scientific research all of us will be able to enjoy a good slice of bread, some noodle soup, or a piece of cake.
- Dr. E. Kirsten Peters, a native of the rural Northwest, was trained as a geologist at Princeton and Harvard. Planet Rock Doc, a collection of Peters' columns, is available at bookstores or from the publisher at wsupress.wsu.edu or 1-800-354-7360. This column is a service of the College of Agricultural, Human and Natural Resource Sciences at Washington State University.