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Researchers Outline Efforts to Enhance Nutritional Features of Food at PAG

By Andrea Anderson

SAN DIEGO (GenomeWeb News) – Efforts are underway to not only tackle problems of productivity and disease resistance for crop plants, but also to boost the nutritional content of these crops, attendees heard at the Plant and Animal Genome meeting this week, where several researchers presented on projects related to this goal.

A member of the African Orphan Crop consortium, provided details on that group's upcoming genome sequencing study, aimed at coming up with genomics-based strategies to tackle chronic hunger and malnutrition in Africa.

University of California at Davis and Mars, Inc., researcher Howard-Yana Shapiro said the group plans to sequence two-dozen orphan plant genomes within the next two to three years. The specific crops to be sequenced will likely be selected by May based on the results of hundreds of surveys distributed in Kenya and Ghana, he noted, and researchers hope to begin extracting DNA from these plants sometime in June.

Those involved in the project hope that securing high-quality genome sequences for crops traditionally grown in sub-Saharan African could eventually lead to plant productivity and nutritional improvements to address hunger and chronic under-nutrition — problems that impact human health as well as economic development.

At a PAG session on phytomedomics and nutriomics, meanwhile, several researchers described ongoing efforts to use genomics, proteomics, and metabolite profiling to not only develop foods with enhanced health-promoting qualities, but also to find ways of gauging the consequences of consuming certain supplements.

For example, Cornell University researcher Li Li described research that is focused on characterizing the genetics behind phytonutrient production and accumulation using orange, purple, and green cauliflower mutants.

Orange cauliflower contain high levels of carotenoids, a vitamin A precursor, while the purple plants produce anthocyanins, compounds that give some fruits their characteristic color and are believed to have antioxidant qualities, she explained.

Now, Li and her colleagues are using RNA-sequencing and other approaches to track down the genes involved in the accumulation of such compounds, first looking in their cauliflower model organism and then testing their findings in other plants.

While some scientists are working on finding ways to breed for plants with higher levels of compounds that are believed to benefit human health, others are looking at ways of curtailing the production of plant products that can be distasteful or even dangerous.

For instance, University of Georgia researcher Milind Ratnaparkhe presented data on his group's efforts to learn more about the properties associated with peanut allergen genes and the phylogenetic relationships between them

After doing bacterial library screening, BAC sequencing, and other analyses of allergen genes from wild and cultivated peanut plants, Ratnaparkhe explained, the researchers also did comparisons with other plants, including soybean, grape, and tomato, to look for clues as to how the allergen genes evolved.