In 1996, the World Health Organization identified that over half of the world’s population suffers some form of micronutrient deficiency.
Mild to moderate zinc deficiency affects up to one third of the global population, leading to impaired immune system function, skin disorders, cognitive dysfunction, and increased susceptibility to lower respiratory tract infections, malaria and diarrhoeal disease. Every year, over 800,000 deaths are directly attributable to zinc deficiency.
By far the majority of micronutrient deficiency cases are found in developing countries in which wheat and rice are staple foods. Compounding the issue is poor soil and land quality; around 50% of land used for agriculture is low in available zinc meaning the situation will continue for the foreseeable future failing strategic innovation or intervention.
Increasing zinc availability in soil through fertilisation has the effect of raising zinc in grains by around 30%. However fertilisation is expensive, requiring constant maintenance of soil zinc levels and repeated application of commercially prepared products to maintain optimum levels.
Many of the countries where wheat low in zinc is grown are developing countries without the financial capability to undertake and maintain a fertilisation program that would rectify the situation.
Research conducted by Associate Professor James Stangoulis at Flinders University is exploring a new means of creating wheat that is higher in zinc without the ongoing costs of repeated land fertilisation.
Associate Professor Stangoulis’ research seeks to increase the presence of zinc in the wheat grain rather than uptake of zinc in the soil by the whole plant. This process of breeding crops with the aim of increasing nutritional quality to enhance public health is known as biofortification.
Working with Harvest Plus and the Plant Breeding Institute at the University of Sydney, Associate Professor Stangoulis is working to develop molecular marker technology that will enable faster and more accurate development of high yielding, zinc-dense wheat grain.
Through measurement of the elemental composition of each plant and the unique chemical fingerprints left behind by chemical reactions within it, Associate Professor Stangoulis’ research will provide understanding into the mechanisms controlling the efficiency of zinc transport to the developing wheat grain.
By increasing our understanding of the transport and accumulation mechanisms of zinc in the wheat plant, Dr Stangoulis’ work will generate molecular markers which will be used to identify the parts of the wheat genome that control zinc accumulation in grain.
This information can then be used directly in wheat breeding programs worldwide. Having precise molecular marker information for wheat will allow breeders to quickly ascertain how capable a new variety is of developing zinc dense grain.
Using Marker Assisted Selection, wheat breeders can target areas of the genome in their breeding processes to maximise zinc availability in the final harvested product. At no stage is the wheat genetically modified during this process, rather information available through the use of molecular markers enables the breeders to check whether the zinc-biofortification characteristics for which they are selectively breeding are heritable and therefore viable as crop grain.
Associate Professor Stangoulis will make the data sets generated by this research project available for other researchers through data storage facilities such as eResearch SA in order to contribute to the world-wide knowledge of the field.
Having defined new markers, Associate Professor Stangoulis will continue his work with the International Maize and Wheat Improvement Centre (CIMMYT) to breed zinc-rich grain suited for growth in environments with zinc-poor soils. Improving human wellbeing one biofortified crop at a time.
For more information contact Associate Professor James Stangoulis.