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Zinc deficiency is the third most common micronutrient deficiency globally, affecting roughly two billion people. Animal products are the best source of zinc, but may not be available to zinc-deficient populations, which often subsist on staple grains. A European research team has engineered barley to concentrate zinc in the endosperm of the grain rather than the outer layers, which are removed during milling. In a paper recently published in the Plant Biotechnology Journal, the team report on the success of this approach, including high-resolution measurements of zinc distribution throughout the grain made with the Microfocus Spectroscopy beamline (I18) at Diamond Light Source. Since GMO crops are not accepted in many countries, these findings will be used to help guide breeding efforts to increase zinc concentration in the edible portion of the barley grain.
Roughly one-third of the world’s population suffers from zinc deficiency, which affects growth and development, impairs the nervous system, and reduces the immune response. While red meat can serve as a significant dietary source of zinc, many of the affected populations subsist primarily on staple grain crops. In grains, most of the zinc is in the outer layers, which are removed during milling, leaving only the zinc-poor endosperm for consumption. Milled grains therefore only offer people a fraction of the zinc taken up by the plant, limiting the value of these staple crops as a zinc source.
Despite its success, this approach cannot be directly used to biofortify zinc, since it relies on genetically modified plants, and GMO crops are not accepted for human consumption in many European countries, including the United Kingdom. Dr Miller described the work as a proof-of-principle study that could help guide further research. “The information that we obtained will help more conventional breeding strategies or maybe genome editing strategies to make crops that have higher levels of zinc in the grain,” he said.
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Menguer P et al. Improving zinc accumulation in barley endosperm using HvMTP1,transition metal transporter. Plant Biotechnology Journal (2017) DOI: 10.1111/pbi.12749
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