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Developing Wheat Free of Harmful Gluten Proteins

Diter von Wettstein
Develping Wheat Free of Harmful Gluten Proteins

Washington State University researcher Diter von Wettstein is working toward developing wheat varieties safe to eat for people who have Celiac disease.

Celiac disease is a genetic digestive disease and autoimmune disorder that damages the small intestine and interferes with absorption of nutrients from food. Symptoms are broad, ranging from cramps and diarrhea to malnutrition. The disease is triggered by consumption of gluten, a protein found in wheat, barley and rye.

Currently, the only treatment for people who have Celiac disease is to adopt a gluten-free diet, eliminating all wheat, rye and barley-based foods. Making such a diet more difficult, gluten is also used as a filler or binder in many additional food and non-food items, such as deli-meats, licorice, medicines, vitamins and even the adhesive on stamps and envelopes.

“Medical experts at the National Institutes of Health (NIH) have declared urgency in dealing with the most food-sensitive intestinal condition in humans, and require faster and more decisive methods such as transgenic breeding,” said Von Wettstein. In 2008, NIH awarded von Wettstein a four-year, $837,000 grant to help fund his research.

Von Wettstein and his team have discovered a fully viable, lysine-rich mutant which lacks gliadin-type proteins in barley, showing the way to make Celiac-safe wheat. Lysine is an amino acid essential for an optimal diet, but typically deficient in wheat.

His team has partnered with Arcadia Biosciences, a biotech company based in Seattle to identify specific mutations in genes affecting the gliadin-type prolamins in gluten protein. Specifically, it is the gliadins that cannot be digested and eventually cross the intestinal wall, causing the damaging T-cell response to the intestinal lining. Fortunately, it has been shown that eliminating the gliadins does not compromise wheat’s baking qualities.

“Creating new cultivars of wheat, arguably the most important crop grown, having increased lysine and lacking gliadins will be of tremendous benefit not only for sufferers of Celiac disease, but for all consumers of wheat and wheat products,” said Von Wettstein.

For more information about Celiac disease, visit, the Web site of the Celiac Disease Foundation.


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Contact Information
Diter von Wettstein
R.A. Nilan Distinguished Professor
Department of Crop and Soil Sciences

Washington State University
PO Box 646420
Johnson Hall 267
Pullman, WA 99164-6420

Telephone: 509-335-3635
Fax: 509-335-8674

Dr. Diter von Wettstein holds the  Robert Nilan Distinguished Professorship in the Department of Crop and Soil  Sciences and the School of Molecular Biosciences at Washington State University.

As a youngster, von Wettstein  spent many days visiting the Botanical Gardens of Göttingen and Munich, Germany,  and was schooled in Berlin, Vienna  and Innsbruck.  He earned Ph.D.s at the University  of Tübingen, Germany, in biology/ biochemistry  in 1953 and the University of Stockholm, Sweden, in genetics the same year. In  1957, he earned a D.Sc. in genetics at the University of Stockholm, Sweden.

Awarded a Rockefeller fellowship  in 1958, he researched in the phytotron at California’s  Institute of Technology,  learned the ropes of bacterial and phage genetics at the Cold Spring Harbor  Laboratory in New York, and pursued  spectroscopic analyses of his mutants at Carnegie Institution’s Department of  Plant Biology at Stanford University.  This work provided the  opportunity for a seminar and visit with Dr. Robert Nilan at Washington State University, which  subsequently developed into a long-standing cooperation on mutation research  and breeding of novel barley varieties.

From 1962 to 1975, von Wettstein  served as professor in genetics and head of the Institute of Genetics at  Copenhagen University in Denmark; from 1972 to 1996 he was professor and head  of the Department of Physiology at Carlsberg Laboratory (also in Denmark), and director  of Carlsberg Plant Breeding.  In 1996,  von Wettstein accepted the R.A. Nilan Distinguished Professorship at Washington State University.  To date, he has supervised 73 Ph.D. students  with dissertations in genetics, plant and brewers yeast breeding, developmental  physiology, cell biology, plant biochemistry, and molecular biology. Much of  the research in his laboratories at Copenhagen  and Pullman was  carried forward by 120 postdoctoral fellows and visiting scientists.

Von Wettstein is a member of 11 Academies  of Sciences, has been awarded an honorary Dr. agro.h.c. by the University of Agriculture,  Copenhagen, and received from the president of Austria the distinguished decoration for rendering outstanding service to the Republic of Austria.