Universities to tackle zinc deficiency through crop study

27 March 2017

Universities of Central Lancashire and Nottingham granted £300,000 for research in Pakistan

The University of Central Lancashire (UCLan), in collaboration with the University of Nottingham and Khyber Medical University in Pakistan, will run a two-year study to examine the effectiveness and acceptability of the use of biofortified wheat to overcome a global zinc deficiency problem prevalent in the developing world.

UCLan nutrition experts have been granted £300,000 from the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council (BBSRC) to investigate whether a newly developed strain of biofortified wheat, produced by HarvestPlus, could increase dietary zinc intake in Pakistan, a country in which more than 40% of women and children are zinc deficient.

According to the World Health Organisation, dietary zinc deficiency is a global problem affecting 17% of the world's population, with the greatest burden in developing countries. The most recent national survey in Pakistan indicates that over 40% of women are zinc deficient, compared with less than 15% in Europe and North America.  The study will focus on 40 families in a North West Pakistan rural community who will spend eight weeks eating the new strain of wheat grain grown in zinc rich fertilizer compared to standard grain to assess whether it increases zinc content in the body.

Professor of Nutritional Sciences at UCLan Nicola Lowe is leading the project.  She said: “The consequences of zinc deficiency are profound and far reaching, ranging from stunted growth and development in children, increased susceptibility to infections in children and adults, and complications during pregnancy and childbirth. This has a negative economic impact on the family, the community and the region. 

"The consequences of zinc deficiency are profound and far reaching, ranging from stunted growth and development in children, increased susceptibility to infections in children and adults and complications during pregnancy and childbirth."

“Through a collaboration with a Pakistan based fertilizer company, we will examine the impact of fertilization methods and soil conditions on the wheat zinc content by adding zinc rich fertilizer to the soil and foliage during the growing season in regions of Pakistan with contrasting soil zinc levels.  The grain grown in UCLan’s study will be analysed to measure the zinc content and also the location of the zinc within the individual grains by plant physiologists at the University of Nottingham.    

“Various strategies to overcome zinc deficiency have already been attempted, but it is difficult to achieve when looking at large populations. Dietary zinc supplements are expensive and do not always reach the most vulnerable groups who may live in remote or difficult to reach locations due to poor infrastructure or security problems. In contrast, biofortification of staple foods, essentially breeding crops to increase their nutritional value, has potential as a sustainable means of increasing population dietary zinc intake.”

Professor Martin Broadley from the University of Nottingham said: “We are delighted to be collaborating with Professor Lowe and her colleagues at UCLan and in Pakistan on this exciting project.

“We know from work by HarvestPlus and others that it is possible to increase the zinc concentration in the grain of wheat, using both conventional breeding approaches and micronutrient-containing fertilizers.  What this new study will show is how effective such approaches might be in terms of improving human health, and how likely people will be to adopt these new varieties and crop fertilizer strategies.”

The team, supported by a local NGO, the Abaseen Foundation, will monitor the participants by testing hair samples and blood plasma as well as exploring new techniques to evaluate zinc levels, including a portable laser used to assess nail zinc concentration.  They will also look at how culturally acceptable biofortification is within Pakistan.

Dr Lowe added: “This is a two-way process by which expertise is shared among the project partners, so that young researchers in Pakistan and in the UK are better equipped to take this important research agenda forward into the future.  The findings of this research will be shared with researchers and policy makers world-wide.”

The project will begin in May with results due to be shared in 2019.