Bill Folk, left, and Quinton Johnson, co-directors of The International Center for Indigenous Phytotherapy Studies (TICIPS). Photo courtesy of MU Health Care.
Each day, hundreds of millions of people suffer with disease, blindness and other problems associated with malnutrition.
Now, one University of Missouri researcher has joined an international consortium in an effort to improve the nutritional value of sorghum, one of the staples of the African diet, as one way to combat this problem.
Bill Folk, professor of biochemistry and senior associate dean for research in the MU School of Medicine, is collaborating with researchers from Africa and Pioneer Hybrid/Dupont in the Africa Harvest Biotech Foundation Internationalconsortium to improve the nutritional value of sorghum, which includes increasing essential amino acids, vitamins A and E, iron, and zinc.
"Sorghum is widely consumed in Africa but lacks some of the essential amino acids, vitamins and minerals required for optimal nutrition," Folk says. "Our research at Mizzou has focused on developing approaches to increasing the content of these essential amino acids, such as lysine and tryptophan."
The human body can make optimal use of dietary proteins, which are made of amino acids, if the proteins contain the right proportion of amino acids. If one particular amino acid is lacking or deficient in the food source, which is the case in sorghum and corn, the human body cannot metabolize the entire protein for nutrition.
"It's like trying to make a dress and having all the necessary fabric and buttons but not having enough thread," Folk says. "If you don't have enough thread, you can't make a complete dress, and some of the fabric and buttons will have to be thrown away at the end. If you don't have the right amount of amino acids, that extra nutrition cannot be fully used. We want to provide a better diet and improve human welfare in one of the most stressed areas of the world."
The USDA and MU's Food for the 21st Century Eminence Program have supported this research at MU for the past 15 years. Without the expertise of the researchers and scientists, MU would not be positioned to take this next step, Folk says.
Funding from the Grand Challenges in Global Health initiative to the Africa Harvest Biotech Foundation International will now enable development of African bio-fortified sorghum. The Grand Challenges initiative, funded by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, the Wellcome Trust, and the Canadian Institutes of Health Research, is a major international effort to achieve scientific breakthroughs against health problems that kill millions of people each year in developing countries.