As one pundit put it — “By 2050, we’ll have 10 billion inhabitants on this planet resulting in wide-spread hunger and political sequalae.”
Current bi-partisan ineffectiveness is factual evidence we haven’t yet figured out a remedy for ‘political sequalae’, but plant scientist Monica Schmidt (PhD in genetics from the University of British Columbia) may have come up with an answer to the issue of food and feed insecurity. “We don’t have to wait until 2050 because food needs over the next 15 years will be equivalent to the collective amount of food production humankind has made since the beginning of civilization — and that makes me lose sleep at night because it’s on the shoulders of researchers to figure out how to solve this survival-of-humanity problem,” she says. “We’re trying to engineer food and feed to be more functional, not just in the level of calories, but making it healthier for the consumer.”
Dr. Schmidt, who recently spoke at the Controlled Environment Agriculture Center at the University of Arizona (AU), and her genetics research team at AU are perfecting a novel approach to mitigate the pressing production problem by manipulating crops at the gene level, an action that translates to a near-complete cessation of production of molds and fungi that infest today’s edibles.
Instead of killing fungi with environmentally unfriendly fungicides, Dr. Schmidt has developed a unique biotechnological approach, inserting into the genome of the crop a specific RNAi which stops the synthesis of aflatoxin (a toxic substance to humans and animals) and its derivatives, almost completely inhibiting toxin production and rendering a crop safe for consumption.
Clearly focused on finding ways to help humanity, she addressed the fungus, aflatoxin, produced by certain strands of aspergillus. “In the US, we screen our crops for anything under 20 parts per billion, but this fungus is getting the better of us and I’m targeting countries where they don’t have the luxury of incinerating bad crops. You eat what you grow or you don’t eat.”
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With funding from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation — “I wear running shoes because I’m always chasing money, but they thought my idea was insane enough it could work” — she concentrated on the plant cell sending RNA to make the enzymes that produce the toxin. “If you know the normally single-stranded RNA you’re working with, you can artificially create a double strand and inject it into a corn kernel, and toxins are barely detectable. A good percentage of the world’s population chronically ingests aflatoxin — which can be minimized through genetics. We’re trying to stop the fungus from growing, but these guys are crafty, so we’re exploring other systems through sequence homology,” says Schmidt.
Aflatoxins, a potent carcinogenic class of secondary compounds produced by certain species of Aspergillus fungus, produce very real global food safety concerns, especially in corn. The World Health Organization estimates half of the world’s population consumes the toxin on a routine basis. In the US, the toxin is tightly regulated, and levels of 20 ppb are considered too toxic for human consumption.
“My research group took a novel and innovative approach to alleviate aflatoxin contamination in maize through the use of host-induced gene silencing (HIGS). This technique takes advantage of the knowledge that all eukaryotic cells, that is most cell types other than bacteria, have an internal mechanism to identify foreign molecules by recognizing a typically-not-produced in cells, double-stranded RNA molecule. These double-stranded RNA molecules once produced signal the cell that this is a perceived damaging molecule and it is promptly destroyed by the cells own means,” Schmidt notes.
“We engineered this destroying double-stranded RNA molecule mechanism in the edible portion of maize kernels to produce an RNA molecule that would match, partner, and form a double-stranded RNA molecule produced from the toxic Aspergillus fungus. When challenged with toxin-producing Aspergillus, our engineered maize kernels had undetectable levels of aflatoxin while the non-engineered corn kernels had up to 200,000 ppb aflatoxin.”
One major company, Thermo Fisher Scientific, with 70,000 employees globally working on life sciences research, calls RNA Interference, “One of the most important technological breakthroughs in modern biology (allowing) direct observation of the effects on the loss of function of specific genes.”
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Schmidt spoke of the three types of genetic variation — mutagenesis, breeding, and transgenics — as a trio of tools to make crops better over the next half century.
In mutation, “we deny the heck out of something and hope something useful pops up as a result,” she says, alluding to her favorite crop, soybeans. “For the first time in 35 years, soybean production is greater than that of corn, 89 million acres in the US, and a Number One export crop. Beta carotene, a precursor to vitamin A, is naturally produced in soybeans, used in your food as a filler, but where it really hits is 85 per cent of soy meal is animal feed.”
With a notation that improving crops improves human health, her laboratory also plays with combinations of the more than 700 carotenoids known in nature to be beneficial in antioxidants. Her research focus here is on things like zeaxanthin and lutein, useful for eye health in a population facing age-related macular degeneration.
“I’m all about traits that affect the consumer, like modification of seed traits. And if you can do it with a single gene, you can move the process forward faster. The less you modify the genome, the less millions of dollars it will take to get it through the regulatory process.”
For example, while researchers at places like Syngenta and Monsanto have increased beta carotene in the endo sperm of golden rice to pump up the vitamin A allotment, it took modification of more than one gene. “We got a 1,700-fold beta carotene increase over wild rice levels with a single gene,” she says with pride because that development will jack up protein levels, improve eye health, and increase nutrient absorption.”
And for soybean farmers, “we’re working on figuring out how to get increased protein out of beta carotene because each one per cent increase represents an additional $10-$12 per acre in production. Current soybean harvests yield about 40 bushels per acre, equivalent to 2,400 pounds per acre of soybeans or about 960 pounds of protein. Increase that protein load per acre and everybody wins.”