Lathyrus Lathyrism Newsletter 4 (2005)
The same goal, a different approach: a new Belgian-Ethiopian project
Fernand Lambein1* and Seid Ahmed 2
1. Ghent University, Institute for Plant Biotechnology for Developing Countries (IPBO), Belgium
2. Ethiopian Institute for Agricultural Research (EIAR)
Ever since the discovery of the structure and the Improving the commercial value of grass pea can
neuro-excitatory activity of β-ODAP (β-N-oxalyl-L- therefore solve one of the problems underlying the
α,β-diaminopropionic acid) in grass pea seeds, occurrence of lathyrism. Understanding the
research has focused on the reduction/removal of this physiology of drought and salt tolerance and the role
secondary metabolite from the plant on the one hand, of β-ODAP can also be important for agronomic
and the better understanding of its physiological planning for a better quality product from the best
activity in the brain on the other hand. Forty years suitable soil. Ignorance is a socio-political issue that is
later, the plant still produces the toxic metabolite out of the reach of science. However, when we find a
albeit in a lesser amount, while the understanding of statistically significant link between the incidence of
the brain's physiology and the action of β-ODAP on neurolathyrism and illiteracy, we may find out what
motoneurons has made great strides. But still no information or habit is protecting literate people from
prevention has reached the people at risk, nor has a developing this irreversibly crippling neurolathyrism4.
cure reached the victims of neurolathyrism. Only a What condiments are consumed together with grass
few years ago an epidemic of neurolathyrism did pea that may protect the consumer from
occur in Ethiopia1. Has something been overlooked? neurolathyrism, and what nutrients are present in those
Or is there another road? protective condiments?
In many respectable publications, the nutritional An alternative road to improve grass pea and prevent
quality of grass pea is praised as being rich in high neurolathyrism may then be to develop varieties of
quality protein, a statement that is being repeated grass pea that are richer in those nutrients, together
again and again. When calculating the amino acid with the reduction of antinutritional factors such as β-
score of grass pea seed, the low score is stunning: only ODAP. A project funded by the Flemish Inter-
20 % of the WHO/FAO proposed standard in which university Council (VLIR) will explore this alternative
all essential amino acids are present in well-balanced road. This project: "Improving the Nutritional Quality
optimal ratios. This is the lowest amino acid score of of Grass Pea (Lathyrus sativus)" is a collaborative
all commercial legumes. This means that even β- effort between the Ethiopian Institute for Agricultural
ODAP-free grass pea is not a healthy staple food and Research (EIAR) (formerly the Ethiopian Agricultural
needs to be mixed with ingredients richer in those Research Organization, EARO) and Ghent University
amino acids that are low in grass pea protein. This has in Belgium. It will be carried out by the Crops
been explained before and documented with historical Research Department of EIAR and the Institute for
accounts2. The ancient Aztecs of Central America Plant Biotechnology for Developing Countries (IPBO)
were smart enough to mix cereals and beans, which in Ghent. The project started on May 1st, 2004 and
together form a much better complement of essential will run for four years.
amino acids. Essential amino acids that are present at
insufficient level in grass pea and are the limiting
factor for the low amino acid score are the sulphur
containing amino acids cysteine and methionine, Focal points of the project are:
needed for our protection against oxidative stress. -Training Ethiopian researchers in plant
Oxidative stress is involved in neuronal cell death that biotechnology.
occurs in the upper motoneurons in neurolathyrism3. -Dissemination of information to the populations at
risk, concerning the prevention of neurolathyrism.
-Selection of both mutants and somaclones for low β-
Lathyrism has often been described as a disease of ODAP and improved amino acid composition.
poverty, ignorance and drought-triggered famine.
Lathyrus Lathyrism Newsletter 4 (2005)
-Study stability of the low-β-ODAP trait under abiotic A mid-term evaluation will be done by an external
stress. expert. The project also calls for an open scientific
-Examining the potential for applying genetic conference to be organized near the end of the project
transformations to grass pea. in April 2008.
-Studies on the effect of essential amino acids as
food/feed supplements on the nutritional quality of
grass pea seed.
1. Getahun H, Mekonnen A, Teklehaimanot R, 3. Rao AV, Balachandran B. 2002. Role of oxidative
Lambein F. 1999. Epidemic of neurolathyrism in stress and antioxidants in neurodegenerative
Ethiopia. The Lancet 354, 306-307. diseases. Nutritional Neurosciences. 5, 291-309.
2. Lambein F, Diasolua Ngudi D, Kuo YH. 2001. 4. Getahun H, Lambein F, Vanhoorne M, Van der
Vapniarca revisited: Lessons from an inhuman Stuyft P. 2002. Pattern and associated factors of
human experience. Lathyrus Lathyrism the neurolathyrism epidemic in Ethiopia. Tropical
Newsletter 2, 5-7. Medicine and International Health 7, 118-124.