The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation selected the BioCassava Plus project as a recipient of one of the foundation's "Grand Challenges in Global Health" program grants. Created two years ago, the goal of the $450 million program is to fund innovative solutions to global health problems.
Leading the $7.5 million, 11-institution cassava project is Richard Sayre, a professor of plant cellular and molecular biology at Ohio State . The grant runs for five years.
Cassava (Manihot esculenta) is the primary food source for more than 250 million Africans about 40 percent of the continent's population, Sayre said. And the plant's starchy root is a substantial portion of the diet of nearly 600 million people worldwide.
Cassava is the fourth-most-important crop in the tropics, and it's relatively easy to grow in drought conditions. Fully grown cassava roots can stay in the ground for up to two years and needs relatively little water to survive. The roots are a key source of carbohydrates for subsistence farmers in Africa .
The researchers will work on developing new types of cassava plants that have increased levels of zinc, iron, protein and vitamins A and E, and that can also withstand post-harvest deterioration.
But there are downsides to cassava its roots are low in protein and also deficient in several micronutrients, such as iron, zinc and vitamin A. And once the roots are harvested, certain strains of cassava can produce potentially toxic levels of cyanogens substances that induce poisonous cyanide production.
"In Africa , improperly processed cassava is a major problem," Sayre said. "It's associated with a number of cyanide-related health disorders, particularly among people who are already malnourished."