Science-Developed Wheat Could Help The Malnourished

By Lauren R. Hartman, Product Development Editor

Mar 28, 2017

Following years of research, scientists from the Department of Molecular Biology and Genetics at Aarhus University in Denmark have developed a unique, patented wheat that may have significant importance to agriculture, the environment and undernourished people in developing countries.

Animal tests recently demonstrated that the special wheat, called Hiighphy, increases P and Ca digestibility. A few of the wheat's advantages include strengthening legs in fast-growing broilers, reducing phosphorus emissions in the environment, improving health for undernourished populations in developing countries and maximizing use of scarce resources.

As noted in sciencedaily.com, the wheat also possesses a specific ability to increase the digestibility of phosphorus and other important minerals. The wheat needed tp prove its worth in the tough environment of the digestive system, and it succeeded.

It all started with a single wheat plant. The scientists were looking for certain cereal genes that affect the availability of vital minerals in feed and foods. Minerals such as phosphorus are often tightly bound in phytate. The enzyme phytase helps to break down phytate, thus increasing mineral availability.

Monogastrics such as pigs and poultry are unable to produce phytase. Cereals contain genes that code for phytase activity, but the activity isn't sufficient to break down all phytate compounds in the feed. Therefore, enzymes are added to the feed in conventional farming to help the animals utilize phosphorus. Adding enzymes to organic feed isn't an option.

If the animals do not utilize phosphorus optimally, it can affect their growth and health. In addition, the non-digested surplus is excreted and ends up in the environment.

The scientists succeeded in finding the genes controlling phytase activity, which in itself was an important step. Next, they looked for a mutant wheat plant. They knew this was the start of something big.  "We found the specific genes that are important to phytase activity in cereals. Then we found a mutant in which the phytase genes are expressed more powerfully than in ordinary cereals, resulting in increased phytase activity," explains associate professor Henrik Brinch-Pedersen, of the Department of Molecular Biology and Genetics.

The unique wheat type was optimized and patented in cooperation with the British company Plant Bioscience Ltd.

"Propagation of the wheat took place in Andalusia, as it is possible to harvest twice in the growth season there. This meant we could get twice as much new plant material than if we had propagated the wheat in Denmark," says Henrik Brinch-Pedersen.

But would the super wheat, with its increased phytase activity, be able to cope with the digestive system? The reserachers then tested it in broilers at Nottingham Trent University in the U.K., and the results were published in the scientific journal Animal: An International Journal of Animal Bioscience.

The broiler experiments demonstrated that supplementing the feed with Highphy wheat was a very efficient way of releasing the phosphorus in the feed and made it easily available to the animals. For feed in which regular wheat had been completely replaced by Highphy wheat, the experiments demonstrated improved digestion coefficients for calcium and phosphorus of 14.6 and 22.8 percent, respectively, compared to feed containing regular wheat and with a supplement of phytase enzyme.

The next step will be to test Highphy on pigs and humans, and Henrik Brinch-Pedersen already sees interesting perspectives of the new cereal.

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