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UC Berkeley Press Release

Sorghum field in Ethiopia Sorghum, like this field growing in Ethiopia, is a staple for 500 million people in Africa and Asia, but its nutritional value and digestibility are low. UC Berkeley researchers are joining an international team working to improve the crop for human consumption. (Ian Godwin photo)

African staple crop gets a boost

– Researchers at the University of California, Berkeley, are joining an ambitious project to improve nutrition for 300 million people in Africa who rely on sorghum as a principal source of food.

The Africa Biofortified Sorghum (ABS) project is funded by a $17.6 million grant from the Grand Challenges in Global Health initiative to Africa Harvest Biotechnology Foundation International, a non-profit organization dedicated to fighting hunger and poverty in Africa.

Peggy Lemaux and Bob Buchanan inspect sorghum
Peggy G. Lemaux, UC Berkeley Cooperative Extension specialist in plant and microbial biology, and Bob Buchanan, professor of plant and microbial biology, inspect sorghum plants in a controlled temperature growth room. (Rosemary Alonso photo)

"Our goal is to develop sorghum that will provide increased calories and needed protein in the diet of African consumers," said Bob B. Buchanan, UC Berkeley professor of plant and microbial biology and one of the lead scientists on the project. "We are extremely happy to offer our expertise and materials for this important project for the public good."

The announcement of UC Berkeley's participation was made from Nairobi, Kenya, today (Monday, April 10) by project leader Florence Wambugu. "All the project consortium members are delighted that researchers from UC Berkeley will be joining the team," said Wambugu, who is a plant pathologist and CEO of Africa Harvest. "Their contribution will provide a second avenue to ensure success in achieving the important goal of increasing digestibility of sorghum."

The Grand Challenges in Global Health initiative is supporting nutritional improvement of four staple crops - sorghum, cassava, bananas and rice - as one of its 14 "grand challenges" projects that focus on using science and technology to dramatically improve health in the world's poorest countries. The initiative is funded by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, the Wellcome Trust, and the Canadian Institutes of Health Research.

In June 2005, the initiative awarded $16.94 million to Africa Harvest to head a consortium of public and private research institutes for the ABS project. The Gates Foundation has just supplemented this amount with $627,932 to fund the work of Buchanan and co-researcher Peggy G. Lemaux, UC Berkeley Cooperative Extension specialist in plant and microbial biology.

The two will address the digestibility portion of the sorghum project, basing their work on studies they have been conducting for over a decade in their laboratories. Their work will complement approaches being pursued by other ABS consortium members.

Sorghum plant
Sorghum is the sixth-most planted crop in the world. (Van Tuong Nguyen photo)

Sorghum is the sixth-most planted crop in the world and has long been a staple in many regions of Africa and Asia. It is valued for its resiliency, growing well in dry, hot climates and on poor soils, but it lacks high levels of vitamins and minerals and is difficult to digest, especially when cooked.

Buchanan and Lemaux expect their sorghum seed to have enhanced protein and starch digestibility so people can obtain improved nutritional value from sorghum consumption. The researchers will achieve this improvement by increasing the levels of two proteins naturally present in the starchy part of the grain. These two proteins are part of the NADP-thioredoxin (Trx) system, an oxidation-reduction system that occurs naturally in all living organisms.

"By breaking disulfide (S-S) bonds of certain storage proteins in the sorghum grain, the introduced Trx proteins are expected to make previously indigestible protein and starch available for digestion," said Buchanan, who has worked with these proteins for over three decades. The researchers will also introduce another protein into the grain that will increase levels of three protein building blocks-- lysine, threonine and tryptophan -- that are currently present at low levels in sorghum.

The improved sorghum varieties developed by UC Berkeley scientists will be bred with varieties now under development by the ABS project for improved vitamin and mineral content, and then incorporated by classical breeding into varieties of importance to Africa.

Negotiations for UC Berkeley to join the consortium of companies, agencies and universities working on the sorghum project were led by Peter Schuerman, associate director in the Industry Alliances Office, which is part of the campus's Office of Intellectual Property and Industry Research Alliances (IPIRA).

"Berkeley is increasing our impact on society through strategic relationships that maximize social benefit," Schuerman said. "This agreement is part of a continuing program at Berkeley - the socially responsible licensing initiative - to use the university's knowledge, expertise and resources to address critical unaddressed social problems."

Now in its third year, the initiative has thus far yielded more than 10 separate agreements that address the needs of the developing world. "I think it's a moral imperative for land-grant institutions that have basic research that happens to have societal application to expeditiously translate it into goods and services for the public," said Carol Mimura, IPIRA's assistant vice chancellor. "Public-private partnerships of this sort are important because they bring resources to problems where traditional market drivers do not exist."

For more information on the Grand Challenges in Global Health Initiative, see: http://www.grandchallengesgh.org/subcontent.aspx?SecID=413

Africa Biofortified Sorghum project's Web site is at: http://supersorghum.org/index.htm