Worldwide mission to solve iron deficiency

Dr Alex Johnson

Dr Alex Johnson
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Wednesday, 11 June 2008

A University of Adelaide researcher will lead an Australian project to help address the world's biggest nutritional deficiency - lack of iron.

Dr Alex Johnson has been awarded nearly $300,000 to work with the Bill Gates-funded HarvestPlus Challenge Program to increase iron content in rice and other cereal grains.

More than two billion people - or 30% of the world's population - suffer from iron deficiency, which can cause anaemia, poor mental development, fertility problems and a depressed immune system.

Dr Johnson, who is based at the Australian Centre for Plant Functional Genomics at the Waite Campus, will work on increasing iron content in cereal foods by improving the delivery of iron from the leaf to the seed.

"Iron content is quite low in cereal grains because although iron is present in a plant's leaves, very little of that iron is transported to the seed, which is the part that is consumed by humans.

"We know of several proteins that move iron around in a plant so it is a matter of increasing the flow of iron into a seed tissue called endosperm, which survives the milling and polishing process."

If this can be achieved, the benefits to developing countries in particular will be enormous, Dr Johnson says.

Rice and wheat, the two most widely consumed cereals in developing countries, transport only a small fraction of iron to the developing grain - 5% for rice and 20% for wheat. Furthermore, the small amount of iron that is retained accumulates almost exclusively in the outer layers, which are removed during the milling process so that grain can be stored for long periods.

"In the western world we can get around this problem by adding various compounds to flour to make it rich in iron. But iron fortification of flour is only economical for developed countries. Poor nations can't afford this so we have to find a sustainable way of increasing iron in the milled seed."

Higher iron content could also lower the production costs of many Australian farmers by reducing or eliminating the need for iron fortification of wheat flour.

Dr Johnson has been awarded $85,000 by the Australian Research Council for the two-year project and an additional $200,000 by HarvestPlus, an international non-profit organisation which is working towards alleviating nutritional deficiencies in the developing world.

The other team members working on the Australian project are Professor Mark Tester from the University of Adelaide and Associate Professor James Stangoulis from Flinders University.


Contact Details

Dr Alex Johnson
Research Fellow
Australian Centre for Plant Functional Genomics
University of Adelaide
Business: +61 8 8313 7160
Mobile: 0422 542 859

Mr David Ellis
Deputy Director, Media and Corporate Relations
External Relations
The University of Adelaide
Business: +61 8 8313 5414
Mobile: +61 (0)421 612 762