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This Small Molecule Could Have a Big Future in Global Food Security

10:06 EDT 13 Mar 2017 | Meridian Institute

Researchers at the University of Arizona, United States, have developed transgenic corn plants that produce small RNA molecules that prevent fungi from producing aflatoxin, a highly toxic substance that can cause entire harvests to be unsafe for human consumption. "Aflatoxin is one of the most potent toxins on the planet," Monica Schmidt, an assistant professor in the School of Plant Sciences, said. "Usually it won't kill a person outright, but it can make you very sick." While crops in the U.S. are tested for aflatoxin and incinerated if levels reach 20 parts per billion, many developing countries have no way of testing for the toxin. Schmidt and her team, with funding from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, studied the potential of using RNA interference against the Aspergillus toxin. Their transgenic corn uses a process that causes toxin production to shut down, while still allowing the fungus to grow. The approach has the advantage of preventing the fungus from making the toxin in the first place, instead of trying to protect the crops after they have been harvested and stored. In field tests, untreated plants had toxin levels of 1,000 to 10,000 per billion, while the transgenic plants had undetectable levels. "The detection limit is not zero, but low enough for the corn to be safe to eat," Schmidt said. And, she added, further testing for potential undesired side effects was negative. "This corn plant would be like any other," she said. "The only trait that sets it apart is its ability to shut down the toxin production. It shouldn't have any other effects, but obviously, a lot of downstream testing will be required before it could be grown in the fields." The team’s work was published in the journal Science Advances. The team chose ann open access journal, said Schmidt, because "we want anyone with an internet connection to be able to access our results, especially in Africa, where aflatoxin is such a big challenge to food security."

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