DuPont Pioneer and Africa Harvest Biotech Foundation International are excited about a new sorghum breakthrough. Researchers have found that increasing vitamin E and beta-carotene in the grain improves the availability and longevity of beta-carotene, which is converted to vitamin A in the body. For nations with a prevalence of vitamin A deficiency, this finding could be especially meaningful.
“For children up to age three who rely on sorghum as a staple, we should be able to provide 100 percent of vitamin A Estimated Average Requirement (EAR) for up to a month after harvest, via beta-carotene. We also should be able to provide more than 20 percent EAR needs for extended periods of time after sorghum grain harvest,” said Ping Che, DuPont Pioneer research scientist. “And we’re not finished – we believe even higher levels of vitamin A throughout the year are possible.”
Without biofortification, sorghum grain — a mainstay in many diets — is seriously deficient in vitamin A, iron and zinc. Vitamin A deficiency causes a number of symptoms, including blindness and an increase in mortality from measles and diarrhea. Long-term deficiencies can cause permanent mental and physical impairment.
The DuPont Pioneer research team identified oxidation as the main factor in rapid breakdown of beta-carotene in sorghum grain. They were able to slow degradation by inserting a gene from barley, which serves to increase vitamin E. A powerful anti-oxidant, vitamin E also helps more than double the half-life of beta-carotene in grain stored under normal conditions. In this case, it improved an unprotected half-life of 2-3 weeks to 8-10 weeks. The finding was recently reported in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.
This is one more example of how biofortified crops are able to improve the human condition. Such foods are economical and a sustainable means of ensuring higher levels of nutrition for at-risk populations. Already beans, sweet potatoes, millet and maize have been fortified with iron, zinc an vitamin A in Africa and Asia. While these solutions take a back seat to an overall improved diet, they can play an important role in improving lives until dietary diversity is achieved.
“We’re pleased that we’ve made continual progress and have been able to develop a more nutritious sorghum grain,” said Marc Albertsen, DuPont Pioneer research director. “We look forward to the day when the most at-risk members of African society can benefit from this research. We appreciate the collaborators who help us move the effort forward.”
Funding for the project comes from The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, the Howard G. Buffett Foundation, and in-kind donations from the Pioneer Foundation and DuPont Pioneer.