Researchers look to enriched crops to solve childhood malnutrition

| Staff Reporter

A Washington University doctor is leading a collaborative effort to end childhood malnutrition in Africa by developing and deploying enriched staple crops.

The Global Harvest Alliance (GHA) is a three-way collaboration between the Danforth Plant Science Center, the St. Louis Children’s Hospital and the pediatrics department in the School of Medicine.

Led by Mark Manary, professor of pediatrics at the medical school, the three groups have formalized an already working relationship in July 2009.

The project is sponsored by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation.

Roger Beachy, professor of biology and director of the Danforth Plant Science Center, said the relationship grew out of the complementary goals of the three institutions and the conviction that “we can do more together than we can alone.”

The group also collaborates with African scientists. Some members of the GHA are currently working with government agricultural agencies in Kenya and Nigeria.

“Almost everything we do, we do with African scientists in African institutions,” Beachy said.

The group aims to identify the most effective ways to create and propagate more nutritious foods. Researchers are currently developing a strain of cassava—a staple source of food for 300 million Africans—that will be genetically engineered to produce more nutrients.

Cassava is naturally deficient in protein and other nutrients for a staple food, but the engineered strain contains 30 times more beta-carotene, 10 times more protein and four times more iron.

To make cassava contain more protein, the group was inspired by natural strategies observed in sorghum. Initially, they tried just to load the cells with a healthy protein, but they found that the plant did not have the energy for the added workload.

Then, the team attempted to mimic sorghum’s method of storing protein in clumps. The experiment was successful.

“We’re not smart enough to make up these kinds of things,” Manary said.

Current experiments seek to determine the bioavailability of the additional nutrients they added to cassava—meaning whether the body can absorb them—by feeding the cassava first to a type of intestinal cell grown in a dish, followed by mice and finally humans. It could take two years before human trials begin.

“We know that we can increase the value of the nutrients in cassava,” Beachy said. “That’s what we’ve done for the last three years. Now we need to see if it works.”

Researchers will later travel to Africa to introduce the crop to African farmers and evaluate its efficacy.

Manary heads the GHA and creates a link between the three institutions.

“My lifelong goal is to fix malnutrition in Africa,” he said.

Manary has already made significant strides toward this goal. He developed a peanut butter-based food dense in calories and nutrients that is both cheap and easy to make. Currently, it is a major tool used to combat extreme malnutrition in children.

Another project in the works focuses on enriching folic acid in sweet potatoes. Folic acid is found primarily in vegetables, so it is often lacking from subsistence diets.

“Many of the birth defects come from those areas of the world where people eat only potatoes or other starches,” Beachy said.

In 2010, the team will enter an early stage of testing by growing a variety of sweet potato high in pro-vitamin A in Africa to see how it fares in that climate.

Folic acid is already added to flour, so it is enriched in bread without genetic engineering. This strategy, however, is not helpful for subsistence farmers.

“[Manary’s] experiences over the last 14 years have taught him a lot, and he’s convinced us and his colleagues at the medical school that a sustainable solution to malnutrition will come from foods that Africans themselves grow,” Beachy said.

A similar solution, undertaken 10 years ago by other groups, resulted in “golden rice,” a genetically fortified variety that contained more vitamin A and iron.

“It’s helped save many, many lives and improved the quality of life of those who eat it,” Beachy said.

Beachy noted that the success of this project supports the group’s strategy. He lambasted opponents of golden rice and other genetically modified crops, arguing that the crops are carefully tested for safety. Anti-biotechnology sentiment leading to regulatory snags causes major delays with projects such as the GHA.

“Those who think that biotech is not safer or wholesome with respect to the earth have been quite vocal in their protests against fortified crops and really slowed down efforts there,” Beachy said. “Meanwhile, children continue to suffer.”

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