Good oils to improve infant and child health in developing countries
Dr James Petrie in a CSIRO greenhouse at
Black Mountain, Canberra
Improving the nutrition of infants and children in developing countries is the ambitious aim of a Food Futures Flagship project focused on producing omega-3 oils in plants common to Sub-Saharan Africa. The project focuses on producing omega-3 oils in cowpeas, a staple food of subsistence farmers in the region.
Omega-3 oils are polyunsaturated fatty acids that are considered 'healthy oils'. Docosa-hexaenoic acid (DHA) is a long-chain omega-3 fatty acid that is vital for brain and eye development in infants and children.
“In Western countries omega-3s are consumed directly from fish or dietary supplements but people in developing countries who rely on subsistence farming do not always have access to these,” said project scientist Dr James Petrie. “By producing these oils in green leafy vegetables like cowpea we could improve the nutritional security in developing countries, especially for infants and children.”
Cowpeas are already grown by subsistence farmers in Sub-Saharan Africa, and are good sources of vitamins and minerals. The enhancement of the leaves to produce nutritionally important omega-3 oils would add to the existing health benefits of this readily accessible plant that is part of the typical diet for the region.
The project is funded through the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation Grand Challenges Explorations program, which funds researchers worldwide to explore ideas that can break the mold in how we solve persistent global health and development challenges.
“Our approach is novel as it gives a clean omega-3 profile, with high levels of omega-3 but low omega-6. We have achieved a proof of concept in model plant leaves, and the next step is to start to move this into cowpeas,” said James.
This will involve using genetic modification to transform a DHA synthesis pathway into the cowpea. Analysis of the leaf oils in subsequent generations of cowpeas will then be required to quantify DHA production.
While still in the early stages, this project highlights the great potential that international scientific collaboration can offer to developing countries.
“In the long term, we hope that our work will contribute to increasing the health benefits of a crop that would be accessible by all, particularly subsistence farmers and their children,” said James.
Read more about James’ work.
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