In the first project, food safety comes under the spotlight when 33 leading organisations worldwide join forces in search of answers to questions such as whether different agricultural production systems - traditional high input agriculture, low input production as carried out by small-scale farmers and cultivation of GM crops as food - carry different risks. South Africa is the only participating African partner and one of only two non-European countries.
“Food safety incidents such as Mad Cow Disease, the spreading of dioxins in animal feed and animal-derived foods as well as emerging pathogens have evoked broad public concerns in Europe. In addition, public concerns about the safety of genetically modified (GM) food crops with respect to human consumption and adverse effects on the environment resulted in a European moratorium on the large-scale cultivation of transgenic food crops. These factors have all contributed to the investment in a research project on food safety,” says CSIR biotechnology specialist Professor Jane Morris, Director of the African Centre for Gene Technologies, a CSIR/University of Pretoria initiative.
The four-year research project will look at new approaches to evaluate the cumulative effects of contaminants and natural toxins through for example toxicity models; at ways of incorporating public concerns into food safety issues; and what changes are needed at institutional structures in an improved risk analysis scenario.
Molecular biologists, analytical scientists and plant pathologists at the CSIR will be joined by their research peers at the Agricultural Research Council and the University of Pretoria to research the two commercially-important crops that have been selected, namely potatoes (the fourth most important world food crop) and maize (the third most planted field crop in the world). They will investigate the plants’ metabolic profiles, derived from the chemical reactions that occur during synthesis and breakdown, as well as the variations in the proteome (the total complement of proteins) produced. This will be done for plants showing “natural” variations, somaclonal variations (e.g. through tissue culture procedures) and genetically modified organisms (GMOs); for plant materials produced under different production systems; and for plants with fungal or bacterial contamination in comparison with uninfected plants.
In the second project, the CSIR will be working on defined research objectives over the next five years to perfect techniques to produce antibodies through the genetic modification of plants. The CSIR has become a full participant in this leading edge research project on molecular farming in plants.
“The benefits of our involvement are significant,” says CSIR Plant Biotechnology Business Area Manager, Dr Blessed Okole.
“South Africa, through the CSIR’s participation, will acquire equal access to the research outcomes of the whole consortium in respect of devastating diseases including HIV/AIDS, rabies and tuberculosis. In addition, it will allow our globally recognised biotechnology staff to work with the top science laboratories and organisations in Europe. It also presents a unique opportunity for the CSIR to investigate the biopharming potential and efficacy of a novel protein-based treatment of HIV/Aids.
“While plants are already grown to produce valuable molecules - including many drugs - in this scenario, we genetically modify plants, enabling them to produce the molecules we want them to,” explains Okole. He says plants are attractive vehicles to produce vaccines and antibodies, as not only are they amenable to rapid and economical scale-up, but vaccines produced in plants are also very stable, with advantages in terms of distribution in the developing world.
“The world desperately needs modern medicines in sufficient quantities and at a cost that would make them available to everyone. Scientists believe plants could well be key toward this end,” he says.
Research locally will commence in laboratories at the CSIR, where the activities are conducted under sound laboratory practices, followed by contained greenhouse environments. For research to move into field trial stages, the Executive Council responsible for South Africa’s GMO Act would have to rule that there are no risks. This council includes representatives from the National Departments of Environmental Affairs and Tourism, Health, Agriculture, Labour, Trade and Industry and Science and Technology, as well as an extensive base of experts who advises the council.
The Scientific Coordinator of the project, Professor Julian Ma of St Georges Hospital in London, UK, earlier said the justification for such a large consortium was the requirement for expertise in so many different areas. Each stage of development will be handled by a different set of partners working on a subdivision of the overall project's objectives. The CSIR’s role and tasks relate to the genetic transformation of maize and tobacco with the experimental vaccines, molecular analysis for stability of antibody expression and crossing into elite lines. The CSIR will also serve on the project’s environmental and medicines bio-safety committees.
Food scientists and biotechnologists will be putting their heads together in a third European Commission-funded initiative awarded to a research consortium of which the CSIR is part, and in which the aim is to reduce food processing waste. The 13 partners will aim to develop advanced methods to recycle and upgrade food-processing organic waste by-products into high added value products. The outputs are expected to include nutraceuticals, food ingredients and feed ingredients.
CSIR project co-ordinator, Dr Corinda Erasmus of CSIR Bio/Chemtek, says agro-waste co-products are currently a substantial negative cost for the food industry globally. A sustainable future for many food processors requires that these co-products are exploited to prevent them from becoming waste.
The CSIR’s scientific contribution will centre around the development of a fish feed from non-animal waste products and microbially-based fermentation methods for omega-3 fatty acid production. Specifically, the research will focus on the extraction and exploitation of the considerable amounts of protein and nutrients in grain and vegetable trimmings. South Africa is the only non-European country to participate.