Would it be OK to genetically modify corn so that it couldn’t be infected with aflatoxins?
In the U.S., aflatoxin-free corn would a boon for both grain growers and livestock feeders. Contaminated corn shouldn’t be fed to dairy cows, beef cattle or swine. At high levels, aflatoxins can be fatal. At low levels, they can make animals sick and less productive.
In Africa, a never-aflatoxin corn would save lives. Tropical weather is ideal for mold growth and aflatoxin infections in corn. Many Africans eat the corn they grow. Aflatoxin compounds have been implicated in stunting children’s growth, increasing liver cancer and making people more susceptible to diseases such as HIV and malaria.
University of Arizona researchers have genetically modified corn so that the plant itself suppresses aflatoxin below detectable levels, even when it is infected with the Aspergillus fungus that normally produces aflatoxins. They reported the results of their study in the journal Science Advances earlier this year.
Monica Schmidt, a University of Arizona plant geneticist, led a team that used a biological RNA interference process called host-induced gene silencing. It involved embedding a molecule from Aspergillus fungus into a corn plant. When the plant and fungus exchange small bits of genetic information during infection, the mechanism that produced the aflatoxin is shut down or silenced.
The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation provided the initial funds for the research, but turned down a proposal to fund Phase II even though the so-called Trojan horse technique was 100% effective, didn’t affect the corn plant in any other way, and made it impossible for the fungus to develop resistance to it. Two reviewers questioned whether the foundation wanted to get involved in GMO research, according to a report in Tuscon.com, the website published by the Arizona Daily Star.
In a statement, the foundation told the Star funding Phase I, but not Phase II, isn’t unusual. Most projects aren’t picked up for Phase II funding. The foundation decided to explore other ways to eliminate aflatoxin in corn, it said.
Schmidt understands the public’s distrust of companies that have used GMOs to increase their profits, but says she wishes that distrust did not extend to GMO research aimed at reducing disease and famine.
Schmidt hopes to talk to other public and private groups and seed companies this winter about continuing the University of Arizona research. It’s critical that it not be abandoned.
“It’s very important trait. It could save lives and increase the supply of food,” she says.