News last update:6 Aug 2012

Encouraging results aflatoxin protected corn

The spiralling use of corn for food and fuel is creating heightened concerns about contamination of this staple crop with deadly aflatoxin. Researchers at Monsanto have shown encouraging preliminary results of a new crop variety showing reduced levels of the mycotoxin.

Bruce Hammond, Ph.D., a lead researcher at Monsanto's Product Safety Center, says that aflatoxin is a potent liver carcinogen and source of other health concerns in humans and animals. Tightly regulated by the FDA, Hammond said threatening levels of the contaminant are kept out of the food supply in the United States. But in Africa and the developing world, poor regulation has made aflatoxin a significant food safety issue.

At the 235th national meeting of the American Chemical Society in New Orleans, Hammond and others presented advances towards the production of corn less susceptible to aflatoxin contamination.

Second generation Bt corn
In the quest to engineer better corn crops, scientists at Monsanto are targeting insect pests that can rob corn yield and decrease grain quality. The first generation of their so-called "Bt corn" incorporated a gene into the corn genome from Bacillus thuringiensis (Bt).

Subsequent studies confirmed a secondary benefit — with less insect damage on corn ears, the Bt corn suffered less fungal infection and had lower levels of certain mycotoxins, but not aflatoxin.

Hammond's team followed up on these observations with the aim to reduce aflatoxin levels. Today, Monsanto researchers aim to confer even more insect protection to the second generation of Bt corn. Pending regulatory approval, the new varieties could include additional genes that guard against a broader variety of pests like the fall armyworm, a particular threat to the southern United States associated with aflatoxin contamination.

Encouraging results
Preliminary trials found that the new Bt corn variety had reduced levels of aflatoxin, said Hammond. Other sites in the US and in Argentina also showed lower insect damage to the corn from other pests. "These preliminary results are encouraging, and we look forward to more trials performed under a variety of environmental conditions to show that these reductions are reproducible," said Hammond. The researcher's future efforts aim to lessen the effect of other environmental stressors that can trigger fungal growth in plants.

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