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ResearchTalks Vol. 5 - Crop biofortification: a solution to human malnutrition?


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Mineral and vitamin deficiencies affect over one-half of the world’s population and contribute to a number of human chronic disease conditions. Economic, social and food technological processing factors can contribute to lower nutrient intake. Progress has been made to overcome those nutritional deficiencies in human body mainly through supplementation and food fortification.
Another option to commercially marketed products is biofortification: a strategy aimed at developing nutrient- and vitamin-dense crops through conventional breeding or biotechnological engineering.
Determining how plants regulate mineral nutrient uptake from the rhizophere, as well as transport and allocate nutrients to organs can have significant implications for human health. With the knowledge of genes governing mineral homeostasis and pathways of nutritional importance, it is possible to develop biofortification strategies. This requires a multidisciplinary research approach with funding strategies to support such research and to ultimately disseminate crop varieties with improved nutritional characteristics. One of Christian Hermans’ research theme is on magnesium, which is a disregarded element both in human and crop nutrition (a paradox in view of the essential roles it plays in every cell of every organism). He is aiming at identifying key genetic controls, which could ameliorate magnesium content of plant tissues.

Which are the approaches in basic research? When will biofortified crops be available? Will be a change in consumer habits?

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ResearchTalks Vol. 5 - Crop biofortification: a solution to human malnutrition?

  1. 1. Crop biofortification: a solution to human malnutrition? Christian Hermans Lab. Plant Physiology and Molecular Genetics – Université Libre de Bruxelles 13th May 2013
  2. 2. CO2 H2O Light = The relationship between plants and all chemical elements other than carbon, hydrogen, and oxygen in the environment. Photoassimilates Structural elements C, H, O Mineral elements Major : N, P, K, Ca, Mg, S Oligo : Fe, Zn, Mn, Cu, B, Mo, Cl, Ni
  3. 3. Because of the constant fluctuations in the environment, the plant has to control the ideal concentration of each mineral within its tissues. Absorption Translocation Storage and re- allocation Understanding mineral homeostasis of plants can have impact on: (i) the environment Developing sustainable agriculture (ii) the human health Increasing nutritional value of crops
  4. 4. Human health: Increasing daily mineral and vitamin uptake Fortification Equilibrated diet Supplementation Biofortification Increasing mineral and vitamin concentration in edible portions of crops through fertilization, conventional breeding or transgenesis to overcome deficiencies in human body.
  5. 5. Malnutrition Condition resulting from inadequate diet or from inability to absorb or metabolize nutrients. Under nutrition = insufficient, Over nutrition = excess nutrient and/or calories intake Evidence on under and over nutrition Prevalence of undernourishment in developing countries has decreased : 23 % (1990)  15% (2012) Prevalence of over nutrition is increasing in nearly all countries, including low- income countries where it coexists with high rates of under nutrition. Hidden hunger Micronutrient deficiency is a form of malnutrition. Prevalence of vit. A, Fe, Zn and I deficiencies remains around 30% for populations in developing countries. Dublin Conference on Hunger · Nutrition · Climate Justice April 11-12 2013
  6. 6. World Health Organization (WHO) children < 5y prevalence data Global prevalence of micronutrient deficiencies
  7. 7. First biofortified crops being disseminated: Saltzman et al. (2013) Biofortification: Progress toward a more nourishing future. Global Food Security 2: 9-17. High-iron pearl millet in India New Delhi The government plans to link a new class of crops, called bio-fortified crops, to the ongoing Rs.6,000 core National Food Security Mission. March 1st 2013 High-iron bean in Rwanda New varieties of climbing beans with higher levels of iron or zinc have been introduced to Rwanda. April 27th 2012 Orange sweet potato in Uganda A variety of sweet potato, bred to contain more vitamin A, could prove a useful tool in tackling nutrient deficiency in parts of Africa. August 12th 2012 Nature
  8. 8. Vitamin = Retinal β-carotene (carotenoid pigment) is most important as the precursor of vit. A in the human diet. Vit. A deficiency leads to death from serious illness for as many as 250,000 children each year (WHO).
  9. 9. Natural genetic variation in lycopene epsilon cyclase tapped for maize biofortification Carlos E. Harjes et al. (2008) Science T. Rocheford Early signs of acceptance for orange sweet potato Jan 2009, Harvest Plus Mozambique, Uganda Researchers are breeding staple crops with added micronutrients early signs from the field indicate that both farmers and families are willing to accept them. The process is furthest along with orange varieties of sweet potato that are rich in provitamin A. Introduction of orange sweet potato in rural Uganda results in increased vit. A intakes among children and women. Hotz et al. (2012) J. Nutr.
  10. 10. Golden rice (Science 2000, Nature Biotech 2005) Addition of β-carotene biosynthesis genes through genetic engineering. 1 2 Although developed as a humanitarian tool, it has met with opposition from environmental and anti-globalization activists. = Pandora's Box to more widespread use of GMOs
  11. 11. Iron Anemia = decrease in number of red blood cells or less than the normal quantity of hemoglobin in the blood. Anemia is one result of advanced-stage iron deficiency. 2 billion people – over 30% of the world’s population – are anaemic (WHO). Fe
  12. 12. Increasing iron content in rice grain Co-ordination between effective Fe uptake by the roots, effective translocation within the plant, storage in the endosperm and bioavailability upon human ingestion  2-3x Fe content Introduction of multiple iron homeostasis genes Bhullar & Gruissem (2013) Biotechnology Advances 31: 50-57 OsYSL2, Ferritin Phytase Metal chelator nicotianamine IRT1
  13. 13. Science 314: 1295 - 1298 (2006) Synchrotron x- ray fluorescence microtomogra phy of Arabidopsis seeds Fe is localized in pre-vascular tissues of the embryo. A mutation in a vacular iron transporter (VIT1) modifies Fe distribution = mutant= wild type
  14. 14. What sea water, fire work, flash light bulb, Hiroshima bomb and a regional unit of Greece have in common? Mg
  15. 15. Mg Mg-ATP Mg and plant yield Verbruggen and Hermans (2013) Plant & Soil Importance of magnesium for living organisms Mg Chlorophyll 0 10 20 30 40 50 60 [Mg] in plants impacts on human health > 2/3 population (W. societies) do not meet the estimated average requirement for Mg Reviewed in Hermans et al. (2013) Metallomics Under-recognized electrolyte disorder Mosby, 2006 55% 25% 20% Percent of US population meeting Mg recommanded daily allowance (RDA) > < << RDA
  16. 16. • To exploit induced and naturally occurring mineral content variation to identify genes involved in Mg homeostasis. Study of magnesium homeostasis in plants Arabidopsis thaliana Brassica species Arabidopsis genome < Brassica genome Synteny Transfer of genetic markers for higher Mg content
  17. 17. Hermans & Verbruggen, 2008 Yo Sha Identification of natural accessions with contrasted Mg content: 50% difference between Yosemite (Yo) and Shadara (Sha) populations. Uncovering genes and gene network regulating Mg content : Linkage and genome wide association mapping. Natural Mg content variation Baxter et al. (2012) Plos ONE
  18. 18. Biofortification = research aiming at increasing nutritional quality of plant products, but not presented as a new panacea, but only as a complementary approach, cheap and durable. > $ 1 billion spent on supplementation and/or fortification per year. The International Programme on the HarvestPlus biofortification costs $ 13 million per year, a drop of water compared to other approaches! Crop genetic improvment technologies can only be part of the solution to malnutrition but it is unwise to exclude any validated tool (EASAC, 2013). Malnutrition is to a great extent rooted in political, economic and cultural issues that will not be solved by the agricultural sector only. Is biofortification a solution to malnutrition ?
  19. 19. 1.Bundled micronutrient interventions to fight hunger and improve education 2. Expanding the Subsidy for Malaria Combination Treatment 3. Expanded Childhood Immunization Coverage 4. Deworming of Schoolchildren, to improve educational and health outcomes 5. Expanding Tuberculosis Treatment 6. R&D to Increase Yield Enhancements, to decrease hunger, fight biodiversity destruction, and lessen the effects of climate change 7. Investing in Effective Early Warning Systems to protect populations against natural disaster 8. Strengthening Surgical Capacity 9. Hepatitis B Immunization 10. Using Low‐Cost Drugs in the case of Acute Heart Attacks in poorer nations (these are already available in developed countries) 11. Salt Reduction Campaign to reduce chronic disease 12. Geo‐Engineering R&D into the feasibility of solar radiation management 13. Conditional Cash Transfers for School Attendance 14. Accelerated HIV Vaccine R&D 15. Extended Field Trial of Information Campaigns on the Benefits From Schooling 16. Borehole and Public Hand Pump Intervention If you had $75bn for worthwhile causes, where should you start? 16 investments worthy of investment (in descending order of desirability):
  20. 20. FOOD Mg (mg) % daily value Cashews, dry roasted, 1 oz (28.3g) 75 20 Soybeans, ½ cup (~250ml) 75 20 Spinach, ½ cup 75 20 Potato, baked w/ skin 50 15 Peanuts, dry roasted, 1 oz 50 15 Blackeyed Peas ½ cup 45 10 Rice, ½ cup 40 10 Lentils, ½ cup 35 8 Avocado, ½ cup pureed 35 8 Chocolate milk, 1 cup 33 8 Banana 30 8 U.S. Department of Agriculture's Nutrient Database