Thomas R. O'Donnell

This biotech discovery could help malnourished millions; plus a rare earth landmark and a distant dirty river

In University research on December 6, 2015 at 12:02 pm
Arabadopsis thaliana.

Arabadopsis thaliana. © Marie-Lan Nguyen / Wikimedia Commons, via Wikimedia Commons.

For many people, running low on protein is an easily corrected annoyance. For instance, new vegetarians who fail to replace the protein meat once provided can feel sluggish, weak and brain-fogged.

For those with the means, a cure is quick: a dose of some kind of protein, whether animal or vegetable.

Unfortunately, millions of children and adults in poorer countries don’t have the means. For them, prolonged protein deficiency can mean retardation, organ damage and death.

Two Iowa State University professors have a possible solution, thanks to an unusual gene found in a common plant. The question is whether the very countries that could most benefit from the high-protein grain the gene produces will permit it.

Elsewhere in this month’s roundup: Honoring a rare earths pioneer, and the University of Northern Iowa plans to study one of the world’s most polluted rivers – in one of the world’s most beautiful regions.

Protein gene

The secret to the plant protein breakthrough is actually not so secret. It’s in Arabadopsis thaliana, a small flowering plant that’s one of biology’s most studied organisms. Scientists have used Arabadopsis as a model for decades because it’s easy and fast to grow and has a simple genome – the genetic code its DNA comprises.

The ISU researchers, Ling Li and Eve Syrkin Wurtele, have plucked out an Arabadopsis gene and dropped it into other common cultivated plants: corn, rice and soybeans.

ISU researchers Eve Syrkin Wurtele and Ling Li. ISU photo by Christopher Gannon.

ISU researchers Eve Syrkin Wurtele and Ling Li. ISU photo by Christopher Gannon.

The gene, called QQS, is an “orphan”: It isn’t found in any other organism. But because it governs protein content in Arabadopsis seeds and stems, Li and Wurtele guessed it could help boost protein production in other, more useful plants.

Tests proved their guess was correct: Inserting the gene into the staple food plants boosted protein content. The result could be protein-enriched grain that subsistence farmers could grow themselves to stave off the effects of malnourishment, especially in children.

And, as Li points out in an ISU release, plants require less in resources like water to raise than cows, pigs, chickens, sheep or goats, the main protein sources in developed countries.

It sounds promising, but other such developments have been squashed by an irrational fear of genetically modified organisms (GMOs). The ISU release says Li and Wurtele used “transgenic technology” to insert QQS into the crop species. That’s a less politically loaded (and perhaps more accurate) term than “genetic engineering.”

Fear of GMOs has led some poorer countries like the Philippines to reject crops like golden rice, a variety engineered to boost content of beta-carotene, a vitamin A precursor. Vitamin A deficiency causes blindness and death in millions of children around the world.

Many countries – even developed nations in Europe and elsewhere – have banned or restricted GMOs, none of which have been proven detrimental to human health. GMOs also face high regulatory hurdles before getting to market.

So, the ISU release notes, Li and Wurtele are attempting to get the effects of increased protein production with “non-transgenic” technology – that is, traditional plant breeding that involves crossing plants and selectively raising the ones with the desired protein traits. It’s possible because every plant has the protein to which QQS binds, called NF-YC4. The researchers figure if they can develop hybrids capable of overexpressing the gene for NF-YC4, they can get more protein.

And, sadly, that laborious process probably could take just as long as it would to get approval for a GMO version of the high-protein grains. Meanwhile, people suffer.

A landmark for Mr. Rare Earth

I’ve long followed the work of Karl Gschneidner – for what turns out to be less than half his career.

Gschneidner is noteworthy for his pioneering work in rare earths – and for a notably complex last name. When I was in the Des Moines Register’s Ames bureau, I received the newsletter from his now-defunct Rare-earths Information Center at the Ames Laboratory, a Department of Energy facility at Iowa State. Back then, he was testing the use of these unusual, little known and often hard-to-pronounce elements in things like magnets and energy-saving refrigerators.

Gschneidner turned 85 last month, but he’s still at work, overseeing research at the lab’s new Critical Materials Institute. To celebrate, the lab featured a brief, mostly understandable interview with the man who’s come to be called Mr. Rare Earth and staged, appropriately, a research colloquium in his honor.

The lab website features a photo of Gschneidner listening to a talk at the program. Apparently, when you’re Mr. Rare Earth, you get the right to sit in a lounger rather than a standard uncomfortable conference room chair.

Ames Laboratory's Karl Gschneidner taking in the talks at the colloquium in his honor last month. Ames Laboratory photo.

Ames Laboratory’s Karl Gschneidner taking in the talks at the colloquium in his honor last month. Ames Lab photo.

Gschneidner’s interest in and dedication to subject are evident: He’s completely alert. Put me in a lounger and I’d be out in seconds.

Ugly river in a beautiful place

I’ve never been there, but I’ve always understood Nepal to be an amazing country. The things I’ve seen and read have done more to support that view than bring it down. There are gorgeous shrines and architecture and dazzling views of the planet’s tallest mountains.

But apparently one of the most revered rivers in this beautiful country has become a cesspool. Industrial use, deforestation and other environmental damage have devastated the Bagmati, a stream that’s often central to Hindu religious observances. In some parts of the country, residents use it as a sewer. Some photos show the river as a litter-strewn trickle at some points.

Overlooking the garbage-littered Bagmati river bed near Kathmandu.

Overlooking the garbage-littered Bagmati river bed near Kathmandu. Michael Knoblach/Wikimedia commons via Wikimedia commons.

Now a University of Northern Iowa professor is enlisting students in an effort to get a grip on the problem. Last month the university announced a partnership with Tribhuvan University in Kathmandu, the country’s capital. With a small grant from the National Science Foundation, Mohammad Iqbal will take students to the river for a water study.

Iqbal, a professor of earth science, already took two students to Nepal this past summer. He’ll return with more next spring and summer to run tests using the Tribhuvan labs.

The ultimate goal, a UNI release says, is to develop a plan to assess the river’s hydrology – the movement of water into and through it – and provide the Nepalese with technological expertise.

This is the latest in UNI’s international efforts in remote parts of the world. Last year, I reported on its role in a project to help arctic communities survive and thrive.

Not bad for a school often denigrated as the “University of Nothing Important.” Folks in Siberia and Nepal may disagree.

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