A few years back, at a professional meeting in New York City, I nearly fell from a 40th-floor balcony.
It wasn’t a cloddish, ungainly move on my part, but a reaction to eating an hors d’oeuvre chunk of chicken on a wooden stick. It happened to be dusted in a peanut paste, to which I am allergic, and the immediate reaction of nausea and dizziness is what almost sent me to my demise.
About 1% of people have a peanut allergy, and it is the most common cause of food-related deaths in the U.S. There have been many attempts to develop drugs to protect people from peanut allergy, but none has been successfully commercialized. There is even one infamous biotech attempt that bogged down in nasty legal disputes over discovery, priority, and ownership.
Luckily, molecular science has just offered new hope to all of us who fret over avoiding peanuts. A team of scientists from Georgia, Missouri, and Louisiana started with the reasonable assumption that silencing the gene responsible for the allergy could produce hypoallergenic peanuts (Journal of Agricultural and Food Chemistry 56 : 11225–11233) .
Complications arise immediately when you learn that peanuts have 11 different genes that produce allergens. Simplifying the predicament, though, is the fact that 80-90% of human allergic reactions are caused by just two peanut proteins. Knock down the expression of these and you solve most of the problem.
RNA interference is the chemical weapon of choice. RNAi works by depressing expression of the selected gene through a well-understood pathway. In peanuts, targeting the two genes in question did effectively lower the production of their protein products, and it had the gratifying result of not raising the susceptibility of the plant to pests.
As to how good the biotech peanuts taste, I’ll never know. Too much lingering memory association with the taste of nuts, and almost falling 40 stories, to risk a repeat.