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Growing greener greens

October 16, 2009  By Marg Land

broccoliOctober 15, 2009 – A
pioneering project to make green vegetables even better has been launched by
scientists at the University of Nottingham.

October 15, 2009 – A
pioneering project to make green vegetables even better has been launched by
scientists at the University of Nottingham.

The research will underpin
future technological developments in agriculture that could help fight a
looming food security crisis.


Greens – like cabbages and
broccoli – are a well-known part of a healthy diet but they don’t contain as
large an amount of key minerals as they might, according to the lead scientist
on the project, associate professor of plant nutrition, Dr Martin Broadley.
He’s secured funding to carry out new research into biofortifying cabbages and
their relatives (Brassica) to boost dietary intakes of calcium and magnesium.

The project is being
funded by the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council and an
unnamed fertilizer company. The research aims to enrich the edible parts of
cabbages, broccoli and their more exotic cousins, Chinese cabbage and pak choi,
with minerals by using conventional breeding techniques and by devising a
recipe for a new type of fertilizer. Dr Broadley says the research could make a
real difference to human health worldwide.

“This project is an
exciting opportunity which could ultimately deliver real dietary benefits for
the UK and globally,” he said. “Recent studies have shown that leafy Brassica
crops are excellent targets for biofortification with calcium and magnesium,
even where vegetable consumption is relatively low, such as in the UK. By
combining fertilizer-use with the development of more conventional breeding
tools, we hope that this project will bring benefits in both the short and
longer-terms, as well as improve our understanding of plants.”

People require 22
essential minerals to live. These minerals can be supplied by a balanced and
varied diet. Yet billions of people worldwide consume insufficient minerals,
including calcium and magnesium. Since most calcium is stored in bones,
calcium-deficient diets can reduce bone strength and increase fracture-risks
and osteoporosis. In developing countries, calcium deficiency can also cause
rickets. Magnesium deficiency is linked to hypertension, cardiovascular
disease, and pre-eclampsia in pregnancy.

In the UK, vegetables —
excluding potatoes — provide less than one tenth of required calcium and
magnesium intakes. It’s thought a relatively modest increase in the
concentration of these minerals in green leafy vegetables would have a
significant beneficial effect on human health. Dr Broadley says this is likely
to be achievable by improving fertilizers and breeding programs.

“Although it seems an
obvious solution, we do not yet know how much calcium or magnesium fertilizer
to apply to soil to optimize dietary intakes,” he said. “This is because
fertilizer studies tend to focus on crop yield. The breeding approaches rely on
the fact that each different variety of Brassica represents a unique collection
of variants of genes (alleles). However, just like different dog breeds,
Brassica varieties are — in theory — interfertile. By crossing different
varieties, and finding combinations of alleles that alter the calcium and
magnesium content of plant leaves, we can inform conventional breeding
programs. The most exciting part of this project is that it builds directly on
recent investment in Brassica research in the UK and elsewhere, which means we
will soon have a fully-sequenced genome to work with, alongside other important

“Taking social and
economic issues aside, the challenge we face is to produce enough nutrition for
a growing global population using limited resources and without significant
negative impact to the environment,” said professor Douglas Kell, BBSRC chief
executive. “There are a number of ways to approach this through bioscience
research, one of which is to actually aim to increase the nutritional value of
the food we are producing. Dr Broadley’s project is a good example of where UK
bioscience research is taking on this challenge and his success in enriching
essential minerals in cabbages, broccoli, Chinese cabbage and pak choi will be
an important step in insuring against a future food security crisis.”

The four-year long project
is part of a long-standing collaboration between scientists at the University
of Nottingham
, the University of Warwick, Rothamsted Research and the Scottish
Crop Research Institute (SCRI)

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