A deadly toxin that can develop in crops like corn, rice and nuts forces farmers, especially in Asia and Africa, to throw away 16 million tons of corn each year, contributing to the already high levels of food insecurity in those regions.
Aflatoxin is a byproduct of a fungus that grows on crops when they are exposed to warm, humid areas and can cause fatal liver damage, cancer and stunted growth in children. Over 100 countries have set standards to prevent contamination after an outbreak in Kenya in 2004 that killed 125 people, though scientists around the world are searching for a more active way to tackle the issue.
In their study published in the journal Science Advances, a team of researchers from the University of Arizona and the US Department of Agriculture say that by altering a form of the messenger RNA in the corn, they have been able to keep the toxin from taking root. Their modified messenger RNA latches onto the fungus and prevents the production of the RNA that allows the toxin to form.
“No RNA, no protein, no toxin,” said geneticist, and co-author of the study, Monica Schmidt. While the adjustment is currently only being used in corn, Schmidt believes it could one day be modified to protect other crops and to tackle other fungus-born diseases.
The team grew three lines of their genetically modified corn and infected them with the fungus that produces aflatoxin and none of the kernels sampled contained the poison.
Further tests are required to determine if the modification changed any other aspects of the corn and to ensure that the treatment is viable for other products. As is the case for any genetically modified organism, standards are set high to ensure that the corn is safe and effective in fighting off the toxin.
If the treatment proves to be successful, this could be applied to other crops and save millions of tons of food from going to waste.
Top photo by Michael Patterson, CC BY-ND 2.0
Lauren Leising is a freelance writer based in Athens, Georgia.