Scientists use genome edited wheat to reduce cancer risk from bread and toast

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Good news for people who like toast has emerged as a team of UK scientists have used genome editing to reduce a cancer-causing compound commonly found in the traditional breakfast.

Acrylamide forms during bread baking and its presence is further increased when bread is toasted, and the darker the toast, the more of this carcinogenic compound it contains. Now a team led by Rothamsted Research with colleagues from the University of Bristol have used the new technique of genome editing to develop a type of wheat that is less likely to produce acrylamide when baked.

Acrylamide forms during bread baking and its presence is further increased when bread is toasted.

Acrylamide forms during bread baking and its presence is further increased when bread is toasted.

According to project leader, Professor Nigel Halford, the researchers are preparing an application to the UK government to run a field trial of this new wheat, starting in the autumn, which is the first such trial of genome edited wheat to be carried out anywhere in Europe.

The amount of acrylamide in bread is relatively low, but it increases many-times over when the bread is toasted. What is more, the compounds that impart colour, flavour and aroma form by similar chemical pathways, so the darker and tastier the toast, the more acrylamide it is likely to contain. The same applies to other foods that are affected.

Acrylamide is classed as a probable carcinogen by the International Agency for Research on Cancer, and in 2006, a UN FAO/WHO Joint Expert Committee on Food Additives report stated that the potential cancer-causing effects of acrylamide in the diet were a concern. A similar conclusion was arrived at by the EU’s CONTAM Committee in 2015.

This led to the adoption of a European Commission Regulation which states that ‘acrylamide in food potentially increases the risk of developing cancer for consumers in all age groups.’

The CRISPR/Cas9 genome editing technique leads to small changes in the DNA, such as the deletion or insertion of short sections of DNA, or changes to the DNA sequence, in this instance halting the function of a gene involved in the production of asparagine.

It differs from the GM approach in that it doesn’t involve the introduction of novel, foreign or additional genes. The sorts of changes to the wheat DNA are similar to those that occur naturally: the power of CRISPR/Cas9 is that the changes can be directed to a specific target gene.

Despite the differences between genome editing with CRISPR/Cas9 and GM, genome edited plants are currently treated in the same way as GM under EU regulations, essentially blocking the use of a technology that is gaining official approval in many other parts of the world.

Professor Halford said: “A number of methods for reducing acrylamide in food products by changing processing methods have been developed. Some have been successful, but they are not applicable to all food types, are often expensive to implement and may have detrimental effects on product quality.

The food industry would therefore benefit from the availability of raw materials with lower acrylamide-forming potential, and the determining factor for acrylamide formation in products made from wheat and rye grains, and probably those of other cereals, is the concentration of soluble (non-protein) asparagine,” he said.

Professor Nigel Halford with Sarah Raffan.

Professor Nigel Halford with Sarah Raffan.

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Chris McCullough is a freelance multi-media journalist based in Northern Ireland and specialises in all aspects of agriculture. He has spent the past 18 years travelling the globe hunting for the best stories in food, farming and politics. He has reported extensively from overseas, mostly throughout Europe but also from USA, Canada, India, Australia and African countries on various topics. He has won a number of awards for his photos and journalism and is always on the lookout for his next exclusive.

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