This Is the GMO Peanut That Could Rid the World of Nut Allergies

By decoding the DNA of peanuts, a group of scientists from the University of Western Australia say they can make an allergy-free peanut.

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Jun 9 2016, 5:00pm

Foto von andrewmalone via Flickr

Back in January, a little girl from Massachusetts ate a grilled cheese sandwich, ordered online from Panera Bread. Her mom had placed the order, noting in two places that her daughter had a serious allergy to peanuts. The grilled cheese arrived with a "large dollop of peanut butter inside," and the child was hospitalized. Why peanut butter was anywhere near a grilled cheese sandwich is a question that may be answered in court—the family is now suing Panera, with the manager of the Panera location allegedly saying the incident was due to a "language" issue—but stories like this may become a thing of the past if scientists deliver on what they say they can now do.

By decoding the DNA of peanuts, a group of scientists from the University of Western Australia say they can make an allergy-free peanut. That's radically good news for lots of people who have to carry epinephrine pens wherever they go.

READ MORE: Australia Just Cured Your Peanut Allergy

Professor Rajeev Varshney of the International Crops Research Institute for the Semi-Arid Tropics said his team's research would not only help those with severe allergies, but would also be a boon to peanut farmers in developing nations. That's because the research has also figured out how to increase yield—a major problem for peanut farmers. "[In] countries such as India and [those of] central and west Africa, when farmers are producing peanuts their crop productivity is very low," says Professor Varshney. The genome study would help increase yield and reduce allergens—thus alleviating two major problems related to the lowly peanut.

Peanut allergies among children are on the rise in the United States, having more than tripled from 0.4 percent in 1997 to 1.4 percent in 2010. Exposure to peanuts or even peanut residue can cause anaphylaxis, which can be fatal. Peanut allergies are the most prevalent allergy among children. About 20 percent of children outgrow the allergy—the rest don't.

READ MORE: We Spoke to Tom Colicchio About Petitioning Chefs for More GMO Transparency

Don't get too excited: The new non-allergic peanut will not be available tomorrow. In fact, Professor Varshney said, producing allergen-free peanuts is far more complicated than producing high-yield peanuts, and their development will take longer. Having an allergy-free peanut would also require the use of genetically engineered organisms (often referred to as GMOs), which are either controversial or completely banned in many countries. Varshney points out that the US is considered to be more accepting of GMOs than many other countries, but, he says, "I can't predict how much time [it] might take."

So don't throw out your epinephrine yet. But for those with peanut allergies, their first taste of a PB&J may be on its way.

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