Decade-long research explores solutions to vitamin A deficiency in sub-Saharan Africa

  • 16th January 2018
  • by secretary
9 January 2018. Key findings in a decade-long research project at the University of Nebraska–Lincoln may lead to solutions in sub-Saharan Africa’s challenge with vitamin A deficiency. A team led by Edgar Cahoon, George Holmes Professor of Biochimistry and director of the Center For Plant Science Innovation, focused on increasing amounts of provitamin A-beta carotene in cassava.

As part of the project, the team partnered with the National Root Crops Research Institute to conduct the first government-approved confined field trial of a genetically modified crop in Nigeria. The study used cassava plantlets propagated and shipped from Cahoon’s lab at Nebraska.

The team was successful in its attempt of increasing beta-carotene in cassava roots. They found that the biofortification process actually reduced the starch content in the roots. Provitamin A-enhanced potatoes developed by the researchers using a similar strategy also reduced the starch content. The study also identified key genes that are likely targets for minimizing starch reductions in future biofortification efforts.

“Vitamin A deficiency continues to plague large portions of sub-Saharan Africa and has been estimated to affect the health of nearly 50 percent of preschool children in this region. Beta-carotene-enriched cassava offers one solution to this problem. “Cassava storage roots that have longer shelf life could provide additional income to farmers and allow them to purchase more nutritionally diverse foods. This would have a major impact on addressing malnutrition problems in sub-Saharan Africa.”

The researchers made another surprising discovery during the course of this project, which could also bolster the cassava crop. A major challenge with current cassava production is its poor post-harvest storage properties that limit the ability of subsistence farmers to transport roots to urban markets. The researchers found that when the target beta-carotene amount is reached within the cassava roots, the shelf life of the harvested crop expands greatly.

The results of the study were published in Plant Biotechnology JournalProvitamin A biofortification of cassava enhances shelf life but reduces dry matter content of storage roots due to altered carbon partitioning into starch

Nebraska researchers partnered with scientists from the Boyce Thompson Institute, Donald Danforth Plant Science Center, Kenya Agricultural Research Institute, New Mexico Consortium, Texas A&M University and the University of Puerto Rico.

Funding for the project was provided by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, USDA-Agriculture and Food Research Initiative and the National Science Foundation.