Now Agricultural Research Service scientists are bringing hope to peanut-sensitive consumers in the form of a hypoallergenic peanut. Soheila J. Maleki and her colleagues at the agency's Southern Regional Research Center (SRRC) in New Orleans, La., have found a peanut variety lacking one of the major peanut allergens. If their search turns up another allergen-free variety, researchers can cross-breed them to produce a safer nut.

Maleki's peanut allergy work has been presented at a news conference, by phone, hosted by the American Academy of Allergy, Asthma and Immunology.

To find a friendlier nut, scientists needed a diverse supply of peanut plants to screen. So, SRRC researchers obtained 300 peanut varieties from a collection at North Carolina State University. Maleki and her colleagues then developed antibodies against the three main peanut allergens to determine if any of the varieties were missing the allergy-causing components. Using the ARS antibodies, they found what they had hoped for: a peanut variety lacking a key allergen.

Varieties showing lower levels of allergens can be used in traditional cross-breeding experiments to produce a hypoallergenic peanut plant. Along with new peanut processing methods and vaccine development in the works, a cultivar with reduced allergens could be the answer peanut allergy sufferers have long been awaiting.

ARS is the U.S. Department of Agriculture's chief scientific research agency.