We recently had the opportunity to listen to a lecture given by microbiologist-turned-food researcher, Adam Borger. The topic: biotechnology and food allergenicity. The talk focused on the intersection of biotechnology and food, and boy was it interesting!
What is biotechnology?
At its core, biotechnology is simply technology based on biology. We typically see the intersection of biology and technology in agriculture, food science, and medicine. As one example, we use biological processes like fermentation to make useful food products like aged cheese, sourdough bread, and wine!
As another, biotechnology is used to modify foods, like creating genetically modified crops (GMOs). Biotechnology corn—or Bt-corn—is a GMO used to control for the European and southwestern corn borer, two leading insect pests to corn. In the case of Bt-corn, the donor organism is a naturally-occurring soil bacterium, Bacillus thuringiensis, and the gene of interest produces a protein that kills Lepidoptera larvae (the insect order containing moths and butterflies)—in particular, European corn borer.
GMOs have notably raised health and safety concerns and ethical issues, with risks posed both to non-target species such as birds and pollinators, and potentially harmful effects on human health as well.
The allergen application
The talk immediately piqued my interest when Borger discussed biotechnology as it relates to allergenicity in foods. He started with a summary of a paper discussing why some proteins are allergenic, and the implications for biotechnology.
In a nutshell (pun intended 😆), the paper explores the growing concern of allergenicity in new crop varieties that are created using recombinant DNA technology—where molecules of DNA from two different species are inserted into a “host” organism to produce new genetic combos.
According to the paper, when we think about the potential effects of biotechnology on food allergenicity, three major issues must be considered (spoiler: some good 😁, some bad 😩!)
Biotechnology allows for the potential ability to suppress or reduce allergen production in particular foods (e.g., genetically engineering hypoallergenic foods). This could be a good thing for people managing food allergies. The allergen-free peanut comes to mind.
The second issue to consider is the potential of transferring known allergenic proteins into new foods. For example, imagine if soy protein (a top eight major allergen) was transferred into corn—this may sound like a silly combo, but the goal is to illustrate how dangerous this could become. Suddenly someone with a soy allergy would have to be concerned about biting into an ear of corn!
Last, and the worst-case scenario, is the effect of transferring an unknown allergenic protein into new foods. This scenario can be a beast to imagine (and the most difficult to monitor!) because the target population is unknown and may not develop a sensitivity to the new product until after natural exposure occurs. Gulp.
As a father to a daughter with a peanut allergy, Borger is acutely aware of the dangers of these adverse scenarios. “It is my hope that as we progress with biotechnology to aid and increase food production, new product developers and food scientists remember these possible scenarios and do all they can to ensure that an allergen is not accidentally introduced into an item that previously did not contain that allergen,” says Borger.
I’ll leave you with this thought-provoking bit Borger shared about tomatoes. Through years of breeding and rDNA techniques, many tomato varieties are now resistant to viruses, diseases, and nematodes. Tomatoes also happen to be a nightshade plant, and in some sensitive individuals, nightshade plant toxins can cause allergic reactions such as hives, itchiness, aches, and vomiting. The tomato and many of its wild relatives contain high levels of toxicants, and therefore, many breeders have selected varieties with minimal toxicant content. While there is no requirement for toxicant screening in traditional tomato breeding programs, it is widely practiced. Moreover, toxicant screening is an integral part of assessing the safety of new rDNA biotechnology-derived varieties.
So, how do you establish safety among these varieties? Selecting varieties with minimal nightshade production and product testing come to mind, but is that enough?
As a food allergy mama, it’s no surprise I found the talk fascinating! We hope you did too.
Do you have any thoughts on the role of biotechnology and GMOs in agriculture and food science? We’d love your input.
– Meg and the Allergy Amulet Team
Adam Borger is the Outreach Program Manager for the University of Wisconsin-Madison Food Research Institute. In this role, he coordinates research projects between food companies and researchers on campus. Additionally, he routinely educates food industry professionals, the general public, and students on the topics of food safety, food spoilage, and general food microbiology. Prior to joining the University of Wisconsin, Adam was a member of the Kraft Foods Department of Microbiology and Food Safety from 1998-2009. From 2009-2013 he was the Senior Microbiologist for Rich Products Corporation in Buffalo, NY. Adam earned a Bachelor of Science in Food Science from The Ohio State University, and a Master of Science in Food Science, specializing in food microbiology and toxicology, from the University of Wisconsin-Madison.