GMO corn that resists cancer-causing aflatoxin showcases biotech’s life-saving potential

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Have you heard of Aflatoxin? It is a major risk factor for cancer in the developing world.  Aflatoxin is a natural chemical produced by a fungus. It is highly toxic and is a very potent carcinogen in animal studies. Those of us in the developed world are fortunate in that a number of safeguards keep aflatoxin out of our animal feed and human food supplies. Unfortunately, in the developing world, people are not so well protected. In those regions aflatoxin contaminated foods are responsible for many poisonings, and high cancer rates. Researchers in Arizona have recently published a paper about a biotech crop breakthrough that could dramatically improve that situation.

Aflatoxins are chemicals produced by certain fungi that infect food crops (Aspergillus flavus, Aspergillus parasiticus). The biggest developing world risks are with maize (corn), and groundnuts (peanuts) – staple, subsistence crops in parts of Africa and Asia. When insect feeding damages crops and/or through drought stress, they are most susceptible to infection by these fungi. The infections can continue to develop after harvest, particularly under less than ideal storage conditions.

In an article published in the prestigious journal, Science Advances, five scientists from public institutions in Arizona described how they genetically engineered corn to prevent its contamination by aflatoxin. For this article I spoke with Monica Schmidt of the University of Arizona. Schmidt’s team engineered the corn to make three small RNA molecules designed to specifically bind to parts of a particular RNA produced by the fungus. These small RNAs made in the kernel cells are able to move from the corn into the invading fungus. Once there, they trigger a mechanism in the fungus cells that blocks the production of a key enzyme required by Aspergillus to make aflatoxins. Because this approach involves three separate bits of targeting RNA, it is extremely unlikely that the fungus could mutate in a way to get around this blockage. The corn plants modified this way are effectively protected from contamination with aflatoxin. This kind of corn could give developing world consumers a much safer food supply.

This work was funded by the Gates Foundation, which also funds work to develop corn that is resistant to insect damage and drought. In combination with the aflatoxin protection, this constitutes an ideal integrated solution for that critical crop. This is also a proof of concept for taking a similar approach with peanuts. The intention is to make this technology freely available for breeding into the local crop varieties that are best adapted to the regions in question.

What about the developed world? It would actually make a lot of sense to add this technology to the diverse toolset that we already use to keep aflatoxin out of our corn and peanuts. There are also other crops that could benefit from another protection strategy from aflatoxin – notably tree nuts like almonds, pistachios, walnuts and pecans. Aflatoxin can also be an issue in cottonseed that is used as an animal feed. The same biotech strategy may well work with other fungal toxins that can be an issue in other crops.

The world’s consumers can derive great health benefits from the further development of this technology. This is definitely one to track and to encourage.

A version of this article appeared at Forbes as “New Biotech Crops Could Dramatically Reduce Cancer Risk In Developing Countries” and has been republished here with permission from the author and the original publisher. 

Steve Savage is an agricultural scientist (plant pathology) who has worked for Colorado State University, DuPont (fungicide development), Mycogen (biocontrol development), and for the past 13 years as an independent consultant. His blogging website is Applied Mythology. You can follow him on Twitter @grapedoc.

For more background on the Genetic Literacy Project, read GLP on Wikipedia

  • Roy Williams

    Very cool technology – hope it makes it into production “soon”.

  • Good4U

    Excellent article. Keep up your good work to inform on this subject of reducing exposure, thus risk, from naturally occurring toxins. Aflatoxin mitigation is just one example of how biotechnology can protect humans from unnecessary disease coming from naturally occurring pathogens, as well as the naturally occurring host plant defense chemicals that are highly toxic as well. Most people have no clue about the chemical warfare that occurs all around them, and in them, every day of their lives, all from natural sources. Natural does not equal safe; quite the contrary in most cases.

  • Be prepared to be shocked and disgusted by this Youtube video of a high school student making a presentation where he uses the Seralini rat study as the primary guide in his talk and experiment.
    https://youtu.be/OPgr3Qv-N1k
    I wrote emails to his teacher and his school principal and copied to the GLP info address. Please add your comments to mine on the page below the video as you see fit.

    • The comments were just disabled on the video page. My impeccable citations there exposed too much for them to face.

    • Peter Olins

      I was not in the least disgusted. Learning to ride a bicycle inevitably involves scrapes, frustration and perhaps a few tears.

      Daniel faced all the hurdles that typically confront a scientist: identifying a problem, asking the right question, experimental design, limited resources, unexpected technical problems, disappointment, interpretation and public defense of his work. I hope he used this project as a learning experience on his path to becoming a scientist.

      I would love to know what he learned from the experience, and what he would do differently if he were to repeat the project.

      • He did not identify a problem
        He did not ask the right question
        He was poorly coached by his teachers
        His interpretation was influenced by a quack fraud
        He would repeat his mistakes if his school does not correct his sloppy teachers.
        Sorry I confused you with a science respecting non-conspiracy theorist. I won’t make that mistake again.

        • Peter Olins

          I totally agree: he made every classic mistake from start to finish, but failure is a part of learning. I can only hope that he learned from his mistakes, and that his teachers offered him the relevant critique. We have no way of knowing what coaching he received.

          • That’s not the point, is it? The video was posted for the entire world to see. It is an indictment of our failed education system. The asshole teacher who responded to my numerous solid citations that proved this was folly by cancelling the comments speaks volumes.