Nut it out

Peanut allergies continue to rise with two percent of all children in the world allergic to peanuts. Such an allergy impacts on the allergy sufferer and their family, schools, communities, food manufacturers and hospitality outlets. 

Imagine a world without allergy-causing peanuts? That would be little short of a miracle, particularly for people who have peanut allergies that are life threatening.

undefinedThe good news is a new hypoallergenic (allergy-free) peanut is in the early stages of development. The potentially concerning news is that the technique used to create an allergy-free peanut is possibly considered genetic modification. 

There are 11 proteins that people are allergic to in peanuts, according to Chloe Gui from Aranex Biotech, who is working on the hypoallergenic peanut project. By using a new genome editing technology – CRISPR Cas 9 – Chloe can target and remove the genes in the peanut that produce those 11 proteins. She describes CRISPR as a pair of DNA scissors that simply cut out the unwanted allergens. 

This means the proteins will no longer exist in the peanut and people will no longer have an allergic reaction. 

While the hypoallergenic peanut is not yet a commercial reality, there are many sectors showing interest, including confectionery companies, growers and nut companies.

The question is whether this gene knock-out technique is genetic modification or not. Chloe believes it is not because she is not introducing new genes, but knocking out existing ones.

New Zealand’s Environmental Protection Authority (EPA) told Radio NZ’s This Way Up programme that it hasn’t yet been asked to give a ruling on CRISPR. However, it considers CRISPR to be similar to two other techniques that they do rate as creating genetically modified organisms.

Whatever the rulings, an allergy-free peanut will exist in the not too distant future and we will have to decide whether the advantages of eating it outweighs the potential issues around the way it was made.

Learn more

Developing an allergy-free peanut Radio New Zealand National, November 2015
The hypoallergenic peanut has arrived thanks to genetic modification  Science & technology, Inverse.com