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New strains of staple crops serve up essential vitamins

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Tuesday, 30 May 2017

New strains of staple crops serve up essential vitamins

More nutritious versions of staple crops could increase daily vitamin and mineral intake for millions of people with poor diets, helping to overcome undernourishment that can cause blindness, brittle bones, feeble muscles and brain damage. Millions of people around the world hardly have enough food to survive. Many millions more may have enough to stave off hunger, but their diets lack micronutrients – vitamins and essential minerals. That can make them vulnerable to infections, weak bones or muscles, and problems with vision or mental health. ‘We need sustainable agriculture to feed the growing population with adequate nutrients, besides just enough calories,’ said Dr Swati Puranik, of the Institute of Biological, Environmental and Rural Sciences at Aberystwyth University in the UK. She aims to develop calcium-rich finger millet – a staple for millions of people around the world, including some of the poorest in Asia and Africa. The hardy cereal grows in areas of low rainfall where many other grains would fail. Using finger millet germplasm, Dr Puranik has identified more than a million genetic variations, known as single-nucleotide polymorphism markers, that she is assessing to see if they are linked with higher calcium content. She is also checking the markers for correlations with iron and zinc, as well as ‘antinutrient’ compounds such as phytate and oxalate, which interfere with the body’s absorption and use of micronutrients. Where markers indicate higher levels of micronutrients, Dr Puranik and her collaborators in Kenya and India aim to use conventional genomics-based breeding to come up with varieties of finger millet that contain higher levels of calcium and vitamins, without using genetic engineering. She is also assessing if her research can help improve rice and wheat. Vitamin and mineral supplements can help overcome dietary deficiencies, but Dr Puranik believes that improving nutrition right from the farmer’s field may have the strongest impact. ‘Developing improved food crops has benefits for farmers and their families, both economic and nutritional,’ she said. ‘And ultimately these calcium-rich products should have an impact in lowering rates of osteoporosis and calcium malnutrition in children or pregnant and lactating women.’

Source: Horizon Magazine