The challenge of population growth not only demands the production of more food, but also more nutritious food. The nexus of breeding and biotechnology within the Center for Plant Science Innovation fosters research to develop crops with improved nutritional properties.
PSI researcher David Holding, associate professor in the Department of Agronomy and Horticulture, studies Quality Protein Maize or QPM, which provides a more complete protein source than conventional maize for food and livestock feed. He has developed a QPM version of popcorn that could serve as a unique nutritionally enhanced snack food and provide conventional and organic production opportunities for Nebraska. Holding is also using the new CRISPR gene editing technology to increase the protein quality and digestibility of grain sorghum, a crop with great potential for irrigation restricted agriculture.
In addition, a decade-long research project led by Edgar Cahoon, George Holmes Professor of Biochemistry and director of the Center for Plant Science Innovation, is focused on increasing amounts of provitamin A-beta carotene in cassava.
Cassava is a starch-rich root crop that is a primary calorie source for more than 250 million people in sub-Saharan Africa. Despite its dietary importance, cassava is relatively deficient in micronutrients such as provitamin A beta-carotene. As a result, childhood blindness and other health problems associated with vitamin A deficiency are problems in countries — like Nigeria — that heavily depend on cassava as a food source.
Beyond breeding and biotechnology efforts by PSI researchers for crop nutritional improvement, PSI geneticists James Schnable and David Hyten are working in collaboration with Nebraska Food for Health Center researchers to assess diverse maize and soybean germplasm for effects on the gut microbiome composition. The goal is to identify phytochemicals from these varieties that promote desired gut microbes for human health.
Through these collective efforts, PSI researchers are not only addressing critical nutritional needs of the developing world, but also exploring ways to develop new markets and higher returns for commodity crops produced in Nebraska.
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