December 7, 2020, by Andrew Edwards (Ed)
Improving Brassica rapa for better nutrition – An interview with Dr Guillermina Mendiondo
Dr Guillermina Mendiondo is an Assistant Professor in Translational Crop Science at The University of Nottingham. She works on different plant species as part of her work on crop molecular genetics within the Future Food Beacon.
The origins of the project
In 2018, Dr Mendiondo travelled to South Africa and visited farmers in KwaZulu-Natal as part of a Newton Institutional Link organised by Dr Sean Mayes and Dr Tafadzwanashe Mabhaudhi. Dr Mendiondo recalls:
“When we were in South Africa, I was speaking to the farmers, and asking about the main problems they face growing plants. They said water; Water availability is a huge problem. Our plants have to be more resistant to drought.”
“The government in South Africa is promoting the consumption of local African leafy vegetables (ALVs) for improving diets, and some of them are closely related to Brassica rapa species. ALVs are considered ’women’s crops’ because they are mostly grown or gathered by women. We are working with researchers at the University of KwaZulu-Natal, University of Zimbabwe and Crops for the Future UK. We will test new Brassica rapa varieties to see if we can maintain nutrition levels, and whether they are more tolerant to stress like drought.”
The Brassica rapa project
Dr Mendiondo and her team are developing breeding material to provide breeder-ready lines with improved agricultural performance and nutritional retention, based on previously tested non-GMO traits.
The team works on identifying Brassica rapa mutants (non-GMO) in genes that are components of different novel pathways. These pathways have been shown to be an important target for improving abiotic stress tolerance against drought, salinity, waterlogging and other stressors. The team then transfers the novel traits across to the ALVs to test whether it improves their resilience and retention of nutritional content. Dr Mendiondo clarifies:
“We know, for example, that mutants of the one of the pathways could retain chlorophyll better, even when under stress, and this helps maintain the quality and nutrition levels too. If we can transfer this quality into local leafy vegetables in South Africa, then we will be supporting the government efforts”.
The results of this work could have an enormous impact upon the daily diets of millions of people in Sub-Saharan Africa, particularly during times of drought and climate-induced hardship.
Tackling hidden hunger and balancing diets
Of course, creating plants that can survive environmental stresses is only part of the challenge. Micronutrient deficiencies, also known as ‘hidden hunger’, affect not only people in developing countries, like South Africa, but in developed countries as well. Growing crops that are also highly nutritious is therefore a recent research focus, not least of the UK Government.
Diversity in people’s diets is another significant contributor to balanced nutrition. As Dr Mendiondo observes:
“It is always a challenge encouraging people to eat new food and increase the diversity on their plates. When potatoes and tomatoes were first brought from South America to Europe, people refused to eat them because they thought they were poisonous. People were not used to them. Now the diet in Europe includes lots of potatoes and tomatoes. It takes time to encourage people to eat new foods that are good for them.”
More resilient but equally nutritious Brassica rapa varieties will help both to tackle hidden hunger caused by micronutrient deficiencies and to balance diets in Sub-Saharan Africa.
The research team
Complex multidisciplinary research like this is never done alone. Dr Mendiondo would like to acknowledge the expertise and support provided to her by Dr Sean Mayes of the University of Nottingham (UoN), Prof. Maud Muchuweti of the University of Zimbabwe (UZ), Dr Tafadzwanashe Mabhaudhi (Centre for Transformative Agricultural and Food Systems) and Prof. Oliver Morrisey (UoN).
The project work is only possible with the dedication and enthusiasm of exceptional researchers like Dr Alberto Tanzi (UoN), Miss Holly Brown (UoN) and Dr Admire Shayanowako (University of KwaZulu-Natal).
In addition, several students and researchers from the University of Zimbabwe finished their projects and Masters theses using funding provided by this project (GCRF-UoN Research England) under the supervision of Prof. Maud Muchuweti. These include: Miss Charlotte Chigumira, Mr Edward Gavhumende, Mr Bolton Kudzai Kakava, Mr Jacob Musasa and Miss Whitney Togara.
Dr Prosper Chopera assisted Professor Maud Muchuweti with supervising the students and researchers whilst the technicians, Mr Power Ernest Gombiro and Mr Patson Dotito, assisted with nutritional analysis research.
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