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Tackling Malnutrition with Biofortification

Aichatou Djibo Waziri

Washington State University

Sometimes, minor details can have the biggest impact. For example, zinc is a mineral nutrient recommended in small proportions; just 12 to 15 milligrams per day suffices. Yet, a diet that’s deficient in zinc can cause a plethora of dysfunctions, including neural defects and delayed growth in infants. The solution to this challenge requires more than the development of supplements and fortified foods. Although the products from supplementation and fortification are relatively cheap in high-income countries, they are still unaffordable in many low-income countries. Additionally, the prevalence of malnutrition is further exacerbated in low-income countries due to their reliance on cereal grains, such as wheat and rice, that are inherently low in mineral nutrients.

Photo credit: Cassidy Shamseldine (Master’s student, Molecular Plant Sciences, WSU). Head row tray preparation for the 2022 field experiment to assay mineral nutrient concentrations from field grown plants.

About three decades ago, research began on how to increase the nutritional value of crops without expensive post-harvest processes, such as adding vitamins and micro-nutrients to an already processed food item. The resulting concept was named biofortification, the use of processes such as traditional breeding, bioengineering and agricultural practices like foliar spraying and soil fertilization to increase the nutritional value of crops. My research at Washington State University focuses on biofortification for one of the most widely grown cereal crops in the world: wheat.

For decades, the international effort for wheat improvement has focused on increased yield, disease resistance and higher levels of protein, with less of a focus on minerals and other chemical compounds that have proven health benefits. Research efforts to increase yield typically decrease mineral concentrations; this is known as the ‘dilution effect’. More recently, scientific research and technological developments have increased the possibility of breeding wheat for both yield and nutritional quality.

I analyze diverse types of wheat resources. For example, I use “landraces”, local varieties of a domesticated plant species which have developed over time by adapting to the environment in which they originated. I also use modern varieties and advanced populations created by national and international organizations doing wheat research. The goal is to identify spring wheat cultivars with the genetic superiority for mineral concentrations using genomic selection. Those lines will then be used as parents in conventional plant breeding to create higher quality plants. This part of my work is complementary to my FFAR Fellows Program colleague, Addy Carroll at Kansas State University.

The first step of wheat improvement for enhanced nutrition is to ensure that the targeted substance is present at a certain concentration in the edible part of the plant. However, increased concentration does not equate with bioavailability, the fraction of ingested elements available for use at the site of action in normal physiological conditions. In other words, a bioavailable nutrient is one that could be utilized and beneficial when that food is consumed. Among the factors responsible for low bioavailability are antinutrients present alongside the nutrients in the edible part of the plant. An antinutrient is a substance that binds the nutrient and thus reduces its absorption in the body. In the second part of my study, I am investigating wheat lines that have the potential for increased bioavailability, which is usually indicated by a low concentration ratio between a specific antinutrient and a specific nutrient.  A complicating factor in this part of my research is the fact that antinutrients can be beneficial. Some can have tremendous health benefits such as reducing the risk of cancer, obesity, cardio-vascular diseases and more. Caffeine is another example of a beneficial antinutrient.

Growing up in Niger, which is considered a low-income country, I unfortunately witnessed people struggle to afford basic needs such as food and health; a struggle that continues today. Biofortification is a sustainable alternative that has already shown proof of concept to reduce malnutrition in poor communities in Africa and Asia. It is important to further the understanding of the relationship between different chemical compounds in grains so that the full potential of these grains can be exploited for human health. My research will contribute to that goal by investigating the relationship between mineral nutrients and certain antinutrients.

Acknowledgments

First and foremost, I would like to thank the FULBRIGHT commission for the immense opportunity I had been given a few years ago to pursue my studies in the United States. Since then, I’ve grown personally and professionally by taking advantage of the diverse opportunities that the program offers.

I would also like to thank Washington State University for offering me a place to grow. I thank the Washington Grain Commission for supporting students through their funding.

Finally, I would like to thank the FFAR Fellows Program led by North Carolina State University for giving me a place to be part of an amazing cohort of students seeking professional improvements.