The Cure for Gluten Intolerance Could Live Inside These Bug-Eating Plants

These carnivorous plants melt bugs with natural enzymes that could be harnessed to break down gluten.
August 10, 2016, 12:00pm

Carnivorous plants seem like the stuff of science fiction. They're strategically designed to lure insects into inescapable traps, where they proceed to melt the bugs alive using digestive enzymes. Now, this badass evolutionary trait might be able to help humans cope with one of our modern-day challenges: gluten intolerance.

To be clear: I'm not talking about the people who "try to stay gluten free" because they think it's "healthier" (spoiler alert: it's not). I'm talking about people whose bodies don't fully break down gluten, leading to stomach pain, cramping, and damage to their lower intestines. Joanna Schroeder, who has Celiac, penned in Good Housekeeping last year how difficult it can be to navigate this disease.

"If I eat gluten by accident, I get very sick, and have even ended up in the hospital, dangerously dehydrated from vomiting and diarrhea," Schroeder wrote.

For these people, who have Celiac disease or another gluten intolerance, keeping gluten-free isn't trendy, it's necessary. A new treatment using the enzymes of tropical pitcher plants (which have a cup-like shape that traps insects) could hold a solution, according to research published last week in the journal Scientific Reports. Turns out the same enzymes that give bug-eating plants the ability to gobble up flies is remarkably good at breaking apart gluten proteins, according to the study, which could allow gluten-intolerant folks to knock back a beer or a slice of pizza with impunity.

"We were just blown away."

It wouldn't be a cure, per se. People with Celiac would, theoretically, pop a capsule of these enzymes before indulging in a gluten-y meal, kind of like someone who is lactose intolerant taking a Lactaid before eating an ice cream. But even that would be a huge win for those who are gluten intolerant, because no similar treatment exists yet.

David Schriemer, an associate professor at the University of Calgary and one of the study's authors, told me he and his fellow researchers weren't on the hunt for a cure to Celiac when they started collecting pitcher plant enzymes. Instead, they were searching for enzymes to help with their work in the field of proteomics: the study of how proteins affect biology and influence disease.

"You need specific kinds of enzymes, which are like molecular scissors, to cut proteins in certain ways," Schriemer said. They identified a pair of enzymes that a certain species of pitcher plant secretes, collected some of them, and analyzed them.

"We were just blown away," he continued. "It was amazing to us to see not only where these molecular scissors were cutting, but just how active they were in cutting. We said 'this has got to be useful for something else.'"

Since gluten is a collection of proteins, Celiac and gluten intolerance seemed like a good candidate. After testing it both in lab experiments and in mice, Schriemer and his colleagues found it was very effective at breaking up the proteins in gluten. It's not the first time scientists have turned to enzymes as a possible treatment for gluten intolerance, but what makes this pair of enzyme unique is how aggressively and thoroughly they break the gluten apart, meaning just a small dose could be used to aid the digestion of a gluten-laden meal.

There's still a lot of legwork to be done. Schriemer said they're planning to do some more animal studies and refine the way they cultivate these enzymes (they do this in the lab now, instead of growing hundreds of pitcher plants and collecting their juice the old-fashioned way), but is optimistic that this could join some other promising gluten intolerance treatments already in the pipeline.

"What I like about these different strategies is you can couple them together," Schriemer said. "You can imagine a one-two punch situation. You're not going to throw away a gluten-free diet, but you can supplement that with one or two other approaches."