In much of Africa, food shortages routinely leave millions in desperate need of nutrition. In just the past year, severe drought and plagues of locusts in West Africa have created severe food shortages in Niger and parts of Mali, while failed rains in Southern Africa have brought the threat of famine to Malawi, Zambia and Zimbabwe.
For a continent struggling desperately to combat the ravages of AIDS and other chronic diseases, malnutrition is particularly damaging. People who eat poorly get sick more often, and they recover much less readily.
Happily, modern science may offer hope for a better future. One project of particular promise, says Bill Folk, professor of biochemistry and senior associate dean for research in the MU School of Medicine, involves using new genetic technologies to add amino acids to sorghum, a sugarcane-like cereal that serves as a staple of the African diet. Such an addition, Folk says, could "profoundly improve" nutrition for people living in resource-poor areas of Africa.
"Sorghum is widely consumed but lacks some of the essential amino acids, vitamins and minerals required for optimal human nutrition," Folk says. "Our research at Mizzou has focused on developing approaches to increasing the content of essential amino acids, such as lysine and tryptophan."
The human body can make optimal use of dietary proteins only if its amino acids are present in the right proportion. If a particular amino acid is lacking in the food source, as is the case for sorghum and corn, the body can metabolize only a portion of the protein.
Think of it like making a dress without enough thread, Folk says: "If you don't have enough thread, you can't make a complete dress; some of the fabric and buttons will have to be thrown away at the end. If you don't have the right amount of amino acids, that extra nutrition cannot be fully used."
Folk and his colleagues have been using biotechnology to enrich plant proteins since he came to MU 15 years ago. With support from the U.S. Department of Agriculture, MU's Food for the 21st Century and others, they have played a key role in the international effort to create "biofortified" versions of rice and corn plants. Field tests currently underway will determine whether the genetic changes introduced into those plants have in any way altered their fitness for growing or eating.
Folk expects to spend the next five years working on sorghum research, work that will involve collaboration with other scientists investigating complementary approaches to sorghum enhancement, such as adding Vitamins A and E, iron, and zinc. Already, he says, researchers have begun laying the groundwork for field testing the new biofortified crops and then, eventually, distributing them to farmers in areas of need.
"Several teams are working to ensure there are appropriate markets for the sorghum once it's developed and that the producers and farmers will have adequate amounts of seed," Folk says.
Published by the Office of Research.
©2006 Curators of the University of Missouri. Click here to contact the editor.