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The same goal, a different approach a new Belgian-Ethiopian project

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					                                            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
                                            http://www.ipbo.ugent.be
                           2. Ethiopian Institute for Agricultural Research (EIAR)
                                             http://www.eiar.gov.et

                                        *Email: Fernand.Lambein@ugent.be



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.



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                                          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.



References
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.




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