March 27, 2006

US, African scientists seek biotech answer to hunger

By Carey Gillam

KANSAS CITY, Missouri (Reuters) - As he pores over plant tissue and petri dishes in a biotech seed lab in Johnston, Iowa, Luke Mehlo is half a world away from his home in South Africa.

But though the corn fields of Iowa bear little resemblance to the arid plains of Africa, the research center where Mehlo toils has become home to a unique joint venture that is merging African agricultural interests with U.S. money and technology.

The goal is to turn sorghum -- a common U.S. row crop used in animal feed, cereals and industrial products -- into a plant that can not only weather devastating drought but also yield a rich blend of vitamins and minerals. Researchers believe such a combination could help combat the hunger and malnutrition ravaging parts of Africa.

"A lot of people have died on the African continent, quite unnecessarily," said Mehlo, a molecular biotechnologist who came to Iowa from South Africa in October. "We seek to have a crop that will enable us to survive during disasters and food shortages."


Mehlo is one of a team of African scientists who will be working in Iowa over the next three years, tinkering with the genes of sorghum seeds.

An estimated 300 million people in arid regions of Africa rely on sorghum as a food source along with other crops. But while conventional sorghum is already known to do well in drought conditions, it lacks certain key nutrients.

By taking genes from other crops as well as manipulating genes within the sorghum plant itself, scientists believe they can remake sorghum into a more easily digestible crop richer in vitamins A and E, iron, zinc and amino acids and protein.

Pioneer Hybrid International, a subsidiary of Dupont, is a key U.S. partner and the sole commercial player in the endeavor. Pioneer has donated $4.8 million in gene technology, and is lending manpower and facilities for visiting African scientists at its Johnston headquarters.

"Africa is a place where biotechnology is necessary," said Dean Oestreich, President of Pioneer Hi-Bred International Inc. "It would be a big step to take and make a food crop more nutritious for people in Africa."

The patented technology donated by Pioneer has already shown feasibility in corn seeds, making successful genetic changes in sorghum likely as well, according to Paul Anderson, a Pioneer grain manager and a member of the oversight committee for the "African Biofortified Sorghum" project.

Still, it is expected to take eight years and a second round of funding before a specialized seed is ready for market.

Pioneer will have no rights to revenues from the biotech sorghum once it is developed and commercialized, said Anderson. But the company, already locked into tight competition in the commercial seeds market, hopes that success with biotech sorghum might help open doors for other biotech crops in countries currently skeptical of genetically altered crops.


Chief funding for the project comes from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation in partnership with the National Institutes of Health. The foundation last summer awarded a $16.9 million grant for the project, making it the largest of four grants handed out by the foundation for the improvement of food through technology.

"Sorghum is a huge staple throughout the world, particularly in Africa where people suffer from some of the worst conditions," said Carol Dahl, director of the foundation's global health technologies group.

Indeed, millions of people in Africa are currently suffering starvation and malnutrition as extended drought and baking heat strip them of food and water.

Along with the sorghum project, the Gates group is funding projects aimed at creating more nutritious bananas, cassava and rice as part of a total of $450 million in grants for improved nutrition, disease prevention and treatment, Dahl said.

Biotech sorghum and other crops are not expected to eradicate the devastation caused by drought, but they could partly ease the pain, researchers believe.

"We have to wait... until we have a complete story," said Mehlo. "But we are already ahead of schedule and we have materials that are very very promising. There is so much light at the end of the tunnel."