According to the results of a new project, presented here at the American Society of Plant Biologists meeting in Mérida, Mexico, a new engineered fortified cassava plant could solve the World’s hunger problems by providing all daily essential nutrients in a single meal.
Researchers and scientist have engineered a “super” cassava plant that is able to deliver vitamins, minerals and proteins to provide for the daily needs of people in many underdeveloped countries. The project, named Cassava Plus, intends to solve hunger problems in African countries where malnourishment of indigenous people is well known.
The new engineered plant is not only capable of providing all the food needs of people but also has been engineered to resist viral threats and has been transformed to reduce cyanogens, substances that, if not properly removed, could yield poisonous cyanide from cassava. Also, the reduction in cyanides in the cassava plant allows fore fast processing, which normally could take up to 6 days.
The Cassava Plus project is an international effort to eradicate effort in Africa and could be used to solve the world’s hungers problems. The project is funded by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. Results of the initial greenhouse trials were presented here in Mérida, Mexico, by Dr. Richard Sayre, a professor of plant cellular and molecular biology at Ohio State University, who is leading the Cassava Plus Project.
Scientists hope to translate the initial greenhouse results into a product that can be tested in at least two African nations by 2010. That is why efforts are being targeted now at establishing effective research programs in Nigeria and Kenya. Nutritional baselines are going to be needed and effective field trials need to be set to test on the field this new engineered cassava plant.
Cassava (biologically termed Manihot esculenta) is the primary source of calories in many countries especially in sub-Saharan Africa. An estimated 250 million people obtain their daily needs from cassava. However, the plant as a food crop is not an easy plant to cultivate and to process. To start off, the cassava plant is mainly made of starch, which provides plenty of energy but is very low on protein and minerals. The plants have to be processed immediately after harvesting to remove dangerous toxic cyanide compounds. Unprocessed roots (the root is the part of the plant which is eaten) deteriorate within 48 hours if not processed. Also, there is a plant virus that affects the crop and reduces the yield by as much as 50%, lowering the crop productivity.
All these problems and many more have been addressed by the cassava Plus project by engineering a plant that is resistant to the virus, has improved stability (once harvested) and has its chemical composition modified such as to have less cyanides, more proteins, vitamins, and minerals. The first cassava plant to be tested in Africa will “likely include the virus resistance, elevated protein, elevated beta-carotene (pro-vitamin A) and elevated minerals (iron and zinc)” Sayre said at the presentation.
This is an excellent example on how science can be used to solve problems that humans face. Solving the world’s hunger problems is certainly a key initiative and this case highlights how private funds (remember who funds the project, basically computer mogul Bill Gates) can be successfully used for great projects.
Based on personal attendance to the conference “Biofortification of cassava to alleviate malnutrition; the biocassava plus program” presented by Dr. Richard Sayre at the 2008 Joint Annual Meeting of the American Society of Plant Biologists and the Sociedad Mexicana De Bioquimica Rama: Bioquimica y Biologia Molecular de Plantas, held in Merida Mexico on June 30th, 2008 (8:30-9:15 S051). The conference program is available at http://www.aspb.org/MEETINGS/PB-2008/SCHEDULE.CFM