What do you want to know about biofortified sorghum?

Grain sorghum at the Texas A&M AgriLife Research farm near Bushland. Texas A&M AgriLIfe Research photo by Kay Ledbetter, via Flickr.
Grain sorghum at the Texas A&M AgriLife Research farm near Bushland. Texas A and M AgriLIfe Research photo by Kay Ledbetter, via Flickr.
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While biotechnology can be used to create all sorts of fantastic traits, for various reasons it has mainly been used for herbicide tolerance, insect resistance, and a little virus resistance on the side. Many other traits have been developed, but few have made it to commercialization. DuPont Pioneer is working on a few traits that buck the status quo and really move into the future. One of these is biofortified sorghum.
Sorghum is a crop with many advantages. It grows quickly and can tolerate much more heat and drought than most other crops. Thanks to recurrent droughts, the camel of crops is re-gaining popularity in the US, where the grain is mostly used for feed. Sorghum also happens to be gluten free and can be a good substitute for wheat in baked goods and other products. In Africa, sorghum is used to make breads and nutritious porridge, and can even be popped like corn. Want to try it? In the US, sorghum grain and flour are becoming more common in grocery stores, and FAO and ICRISAT both have some great traditional recipes.sorghum production
Sorghum is an important crop in Africa, with 23.4 million tonnes produced in 2012. While world production of sorghum seems to be level, sorghum production is slowly increasing in Africa (see graph, click to embiggen). For comparison, Africa produced 69.4 million tonnes of corn in 2012. Data from FAOSTAT.
One drawback of sorghum is that it hasn’t undergone as much breeding as corn and soy, although some companies do sell hybrid sorghum seed. Another drawback is that sorghum grain, like corn and rice, is lacking in many nutrients, so people who subsist on these grains suffer from micronutrient deficiencies. There is a lot of room for improvement.
To help address the micronutrient deficiencies, DuPont Pioneer has been working on biofortified sorghum for Africa. This special sorghum will have improved levels of vitamin A, the iron and zinc will be more easily absorbed by the people who eat it, and the protein will have a better balance of amino acids. The project is an amazing example of private-public partnerships, with funding coming from both private industry and non-profit organizations. The Africa Biofortified Sorghum project has a set of governance structures to help keep everyone’s roles in the right place. To learn more, check out the DuPont Pioneer fact sheet titled Investing In Africa: The Africa Biofortified Sorghum Initiative, and the Africa Biofortified Sorghum Project website.

What do you want to know about biofortified sorghum?

The Biofortified Blog has arranged an interview with Dr. Marc Albertsen, who is DuPont Pioneer’s team lead for the ABS project (see his bio below). We’re excited to bring our readers this special opportunity to ask questions of senior scientist at a prominent biotech company. Please comment with your questions, which I will compile and send to Marc in about a week.
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Dr. Marc Albertson, image provided by DuPont Pioneer.
Dr. Marc Albertsen, image provided by DuPont Pioneer.

Dr. Marc Albertsen is the DuPont Pioneer leader of two philanthropic, multi-partner, public-private-partnerships, each with the goal of improving the lives of subsistence farmers in Africa. One of these is the Africa Biofortified Sorghum (ABS) project, which is developing nutritionally enhanced sorghum to enhance the lives of people dependent upon sorghum for their staple diet. The other is the Improved Maize for African Soils (IMAS) project, which is improving the nitrogen use efficiency of maize for subsistence farmers through a combination of conventional, molecular, and transgenic breeding.
Dr. Albertsen has over 32 years of research and leadership experience at DuPont Pioneer in reproductive biology and agronomic traits with a background that combines genetics, cytogenetics, crop breeding, cytology, molecular biology, and plant physiology. He has authored or co-authored over 25 refereed journal articles, over 60 additional professional article and abstracts, and over 45 patents.
Dr. Albertsen holds a doctorate in Plant Breeding and Genetics from the University of Minnesota, a master’s degree in Plant Breeding and Cytogenetics and a bachelor’s degree in Botany from Iowa State University (go Cyclones!). He pursued postdoctoral research at Iowa State before joining Pioneer. His career has been marked by many honors and awards, including being named a Fellow of the Crop Science Society of America in 2012.

Anastasia Bodnar

Written by Anastasia Bodnar

Anastasia Bodnar serves as the Policy Director of Biology Fortified, Inc. She is a science communicator and multidisciplinary risk analyst with a career in federal service. She has a PhD in plant genetics and sustainable agriculture from Iowa State University.

13 comments

  1. I have lots of questions but I’ll restrain myself to three for now! I hope non-science questions are ok!
    1) How did DuPont Pioneer get involved in this project? Were they one of the founders or did the project already exist when DuPont Pioneer got involved?
    2) What is the plan for patents and licensing? I’ve seen a few other private-public partnerships that aimed to give seeds away or sell them at cost for low income or subsistence farmers but charge farmers that make above a certain income level. This sounds like a great idea but implementation might be difficult.
    3) What is the anticipated timeline for release? I know the patchwork of regulatory systems can be hard to navigate – how much more time does regulation add on to the timeline?

  2. 1) How did you decide which nutrients to enhance in the sorghum vs. others that people might be deficient in (e.g. potassium,B vitamins, etc.)?
    2) Many African nations push back against the production of genetically modified crops since a market for any excess production to European countries, do you see this stigma affecting the potential adoption of this sorghum as a crop?

  3. Related to patents and licensing, I presume farmers will be able so share and save seed. What happens if seed gets traded past country borders? How can it really be (fairly) restricted to low income farmers without imposing regulatory burdens those same farmers can’t afford?

  4. I think a follow-up to this might be: what material in public genebanks do you want to try incorporating in the future? Given how little breeding attention sorghum has received, there are presumably a LOT of useful variety.

  5. It looks like the development is possibly following along the lines Golden Rice? (with enhanced Vit A, and an accompanying increase in lysine) and that the team is working on “stabilizing” the Vit A in the plant? The plant also increases nutrient absorption by reducing anti-nutrients. All good things.
    What sort of “-omics” have been employed to evaluate possible reduction of other beneficial compounds in comparison to the parent? Or examine for unfamiliar compounds with unknown effects? I understand the complicated evaluation that must occur to ensure safety and am just wondering if the public might be able to review the research and testing somewhere?
    Do you have to consider how the nutrients affect each other? (some vitamins and minerals aren’t easily absorbed in the presence of certain other micronutrients, as is mentioned with the reduction of phytates in the new sorghum being a helpful thing for absorption.) Do you have an example of how you had to work though such a problem in the development?
    Sorry, i know this is a lot of questions. Thanks for the chance to ask them!

  6. (I’m wondering about the “better balance” of protein – since I see an increase in lysine, tryptophan and threonine – but wonder how that reflects a better balance. How were levels of other amino acids in the parent affected? ok – that’s it 🙂

  7. oh boy, I should have thought this through, but I have more questions: is the sorghum engineered for anything besides nutritional changes? I’ve seen that it possesses some ability to block aluminum absorption from the soil – are they trying to increase that? And that it also contains some pesticide compounds. any engineered changes there?
    The website says that the GE increases tryptophan and threonine, but those are already pretty high in sorghum, and zinc and iron absorption can be increased by preparing the sorghum as it is typically prepared. So this seems to be mostly good if the Vit A stability can be worked out.
    I guess boiling down my questions: what does a better protein balance mean? How does the protein differ from the parent in any way but increased lysine? Is it possible to have too much tryptophan in conjunction with the other naturally occurring proteins? Has the engineered Vit A been stabilized at this point?
    This is a lot but I’m very interested in how these things are approached and decided. It is very cool to have the developer available to answer. Thanks again.

  8. If the GM version of sorghum (and other biofortified crops, like Golden Rice) produces significantly different levels of nutrients, can they still be characterized as ‘substantially equivalent’ with unmodified crops, since by definition they’re not equivalent?
    Is this an examples of a ‘functional food’ that is required to be evaluated for its ingredients, effects, and any accompanying health claims in marketing statements?
    How quickly does the beta-carotene degrade in the absence of processing and/or refrigeration after harvest?
    What other foods are necessary to eat in conjunction with biofortified sorghum to facilitate nutritionally meaningful absorbtion of the beta-carotene, iron, and zinc?
    Thanks!

  9. Great questions, everyone! I’ll keep this open for more questions until Sunday and send the list over to Marc on Monday. So there’s a bit more time to ask questions if you know anyone who might be interested.

  10. I have one more question 🙂 Is the fat content for Vit A metabolism a concern in sorghum as it was in golden rice? Thanks

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