Making Food Safer

UA researchers have pioneered a new approach that could save millions of tons of crops each year from contamination with aflatoxin — a major threat to health and food security, especially in the developing world.

Daniel Stolte — University Communications, Jacob Chinn photo

Researchers at the University of Arizona have found a promising way to prevent the loss of millions of tons of crops to a fungus each year, offering the potential to dramatically improve food security, especially in developing countries. The team’s approach uses transgenic corn plants that produce small RNA molecules that prevent fungi from producing aflatoxin, a highly toxic substance that can render an entire harvest unsafe for human consumption even in small amounts. 

Although field testing will have to precede widespread application of the new technique in agricultural settings around the world, the study, published in Science Advances, showed that transgenic corn plants infected with the fungus suppressed toxin levels below detectable limits.   
Crops all over the world are susceptible to infection by fungi of various Aspergillus species, which produce secondary metabolites known as aflatoxins. These compounds have been implicated in stunting children’s growth, increasing the risk for liver cancer and making people more susceptible to diseases such as HIV and malaria. 

In the U.S., crops intended for human consumption are tested for aflatoxin and incinerated when levels approach 20 parts per billion (equivalent to one drop of water in a 22,000-gallon pool), but no routine testing is available in many developing parts of the world — especially Africa, where millions of people depend on consuming what they harvest. There, toxin levels up to 100,000 parts per billion have been measured, says study leader Monica Schmidt, an assistant professor in the UA’s School of Plant Sciences and a member of the UA’s BIO5 Institute.

“Aflatoxin is one of the most potent toxins on the planet,” Schmidt says. “Usually it won’t kill a person outright, but it can make you very sick.”

Funded by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, Schmidt and her team set out to study whether a naturally occurring biological mechanism called RNA interference could be used as a weapon against the Aspergillus fungus. That approach, called Host-Induced Gene Silencing, or HIGS, builds on previous work by other researchers who discovered that during the infectious process the host plant and the fungus exchange small nucleic acid molecules.