Aflatoxin-resistant corn could save lives in developing countries

Droughts, floods, fire and other natural disasters can wipe out a section of crops in the blink of an eye, but any farmer can tell you that there are plenty of more insidious things to watch out for, like mold that produces crop-ruining mycotoxins.

Now, researchers have made big strides in making corn that is genetically immune to one of the most harmful mycotoxins: aflatoxin.

Mycotoxins are natural toxins produced by mold growing on plants. The mold Aspergillus produces a type of mycotoxin called aflatoxin, which is a big problem especially for corn and peanut producers. Any heavily contaminated feed or food product is unsuitable for human or animal consumption, as over time, exposure to aflatoxin can create many health problems — like an increased risk of liver cancer.

Hoping to alleviate the aflatoxin struggles of farmers around the world, University of Arizona researchers have developed a genetically modified corn that can silence the aflatoxin-producing genes in the Aspergillus fungi that grows on corn. Though the corn can still grow the fungus, aflatoxin will not enter its kernels, reports AgWeb.

Currently, the research team is conducting testing, first in greenhouses and later in fields. Their hope is that, over the long term, they can get enough support to make the GMO corn a widely available product.

“This will make a difference in the U.S., but it will make the biggest difference in the undeveloped world,” said Monica Schmidt, a researcher on the team. “There they don’t test corn (for aflatoxin), and about 4.5 billion people consume the toxin.”

In Africa, aflatoxin contamination creates a loss of $670 million USD each year, with countless lives lost to liver cancer — at least 5,000 yearly in Nigeria alone. There and in other parts of the world where aflatoxin runs rampant, kids face stunted growth and weakened immune systems due to exposure.

“It can save lives,” Schmidt said. “I’d love to see it go to Africa.”

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