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Scientists Developing Hypo-Allergenic Apples

iStockphoto/Thinkstock(NEW YORK) -- Italian scientists and researchers are working to create a hypo-allergenic apple that could provide a new frontier for the genetically modified food market.

While apples rarely cause the same intense allergic reaction as more common allergens like shellfish or peanuts, they often cause irritation for those allergic to birch pollen and can result in irritation or blistering on the tongue or lips.

The large collective working on the project, called the Ager Melo Group, is made of up allergists, molecular biologists and plant physiologists working to breed new types of apples that would promote good nutrition and health.  The group is part of the Italian Ager Project, which is made up of 13 grant-making foundations which banded together to invest more than 27 million euros into agriculture research.

Dr. Alessandro Botton, a plant physiologist at the Department of Agronomy, Food, Natural Resources, Animals and Environment in the University of Padua, has worked on unraveling the apple's genetic markers responsible for causing allergic reactions.  Botton and his team are working to find alternative hypo-allergenic proteins that exist naturally in other plants and swap them in for the irritation-causing proteins in apples.

This early in the process, Botton says that genetic changes will have to be studied to ensure that there are not unintended complications that could compromise the organism.

"You cannot know what will happen when you silence a biological gene," said Botton.  However, Botton says that by using other plant proteins, the structure of the apple would likely not be significantly changed.

Patty Lovera, assistant director for the food watchdog group Food and Water Watch, says a central concern with genetically modified food is potential consequences that can arise from changing genetic sequences which could result in unexpected allergic reactions or decreased nutritional value.

"It's not as simple as you cut out this one piece and the allergies are gone," said Lovera.  "We're also concerned about that there are other traits that you didn't intend to put in there."

Botton says genetically modified apples provide a faster option for developing hypo-allergenic varieties than through traditional means.  While some types of apples naturally have fewer allergens than others, creating a hypo-allergenic species would be a lengthy and time-consuming process.  It can take 20 years to develop a single new variety of apple with no guarantee it would have reduced allergens.

Genetically modified foods have been controversial in both Europe and the United States, with oversight non-profit groups such as Food and Water Watch concerned that these foods can cause unexpected illness or health problems after being modified.  While the Food and Drug Administration does not require genetically modified foods to be labeled, last week Whole Foods announced they would add labels to genetically modified foods.

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