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Introduction of X-ray into breeding process a game-changer

  • Published at 09:32 pm April 3rd, 2021
XRF x-ray fluorescence labs zinc rice
X-ray fluorescence labs are now pivotal for faster breeding of zinc rice in Bangladesh Courtesy

X-ray fluorescence labs set up in 15 countries including one in Bangladesh helps develop nutritious crops

Introduction of x-ray fluorescence (XRF) machine into crop breeding process is a game-changer.

The XRF, commonly used in the mining industry, is now being used for high-throughput screening of the mineral content of crops in many countries including Bangladesh.

It helps development of staple crops that are biofortified with minerals, particularly iron and zinc, to help combat malnutrition.

Biofortification is the idea of breeding crops to increase their nutritional value either through conventional selective breeding, or through genetic engineering. Bangladesh Rice Research Institute(BRRI) has developed six hi-zinc rice varieties, so far, through conventional breeding.

The varieties are – BRRI Dhan-62, BRRI Dhan-64, BRRI Dhan-72, BRRI Dhan-74, BRRI Dhan-84, and BRRI Dhan-100.

Bangladesh received, in recent years, some XRF machines from the HarvestPlus thereby helping BRRI faster breeding of zinc rice, and train scientists in the use of advanced screening techniques.

The XRF laboratory center is located at HarvestPlus’ regional office in Bogra. The facility is the first of its kind in Bangladesh and boasts an XRF machine that has been instrumental in supporting the efforts to improve the nutrient content of rice, a staple in Bangladesh.

HarvestPlus made the XRF laboratory available to partner organizations involved in analyzing and developing zinc and iron content in rice and wheat.

Around 29% of South Asia’s population, including that of Bangladesh, are at risk of inadequate zinc intake, according to Harvest Plus, a program based at the International Food Policy Research Institute (IFPRI) that helped BRRI scientists develop six hi-zinc rice varieties since 2013.

Breeders in Bangladesh released the world's first biologically fortified (biofortified) high-yielding variety zinc rice – BRRI Dhan-62 – back in August 2013. 

Upcoming technology

Now work is underway on the development of handheld XRF machines that could be used to confirm mineral levels in biofortified grain, helping confirm the authenticity of biofortified varieties in the marketplace. 

“The use of high-performance technologies such as XRF-ED (Energy Dispersive X-ray Fluorescence) helps plant breeders to have first-hand mineral analysis from field trials with reliable results. Up to 140 samples can be analyzed daily with a minimum of processing, consumable costs are very low and the technique allows samples to be saved as it is a non-destructive technique. With the new models of equipment, it has been possible to reach this analysis efficiency because its components can perform faster measurements and with more precise results,” said Luis Londoño, coordinator of the Nutrition Quality Lab of HarvestPlus in International Center for Tropical Agriculture (CIAT).

XRF machine – how does it work?

The XRF machines use cutting edge technology for speedier identification of the best seeds with the mineral content needed for breeding, thus saving time and money for researchers. The XRF technology uses X-rays to analyze elements, and is considered a more efficient and cost-effective alternative to other technologies available to crop breeders. 

When the XRF passes X-rays through a crop sample, the mineral nutrients in the sample emit X-rays that are different than the incoming X-rays. The outgoing X-rays are characteristic of that mineral, facilitating determination of the crops’ nutrient content.

The XRF machine normally requires only 30 seconds to a minute to evaluate a sample.

Fighting malnutrition with biofortified crops

Globally, more than 2 billion people suffer from micronutrient deficiencies—a condition known as hidden hunger. Those suffering from this invisible form of undernutrition are vulnerable to blindness, impaired physical and cognitive development, disease, and even premature death.

Smallholder farming families in low- and middle-income countries often cannot afford to eat sufficient volumes of fruits and vegetables, high-quality proteins, vitamin supplements and processed food fortified with micronutrients are often out of reach.

In collaboration with many partners, HarvestPlus and the CGIAR crop breeding centers develop and promote micronutrient-rich varieties of staple food crops with higher amounts of provitamin A, iron, or zinc—three of the micronutrients identified by the World Health Organization as most lacking in diets globally. The process is known as biofortification—and regular consumption of these innovative crops is improving nutrition and public health. 

Washington-based CGIAR is global network of 15 agricultural research centres working across the world including IRRI, CIMMYT, CIAT, World Fish.

Over the years, all mineral-biofortified crops have benefited from the introduction of the XRF. Currently, there are 22 XRF labs set up in 15 countries across the globe.

“From 2014 to 2019, we have analyzed about 33,000 maize samples using XRF instruments to measure iron and zinc content in maize. Most of the samples were from our Nutritious Zn maize breeding program at CIMMYT, but about 30 percent of the samples were from partners in Africa, and Central and South America. Last year, we analyzed around 1000 samples, an amount that would have been almost impossible to do by ICP-OES under the restrictions by the COVID-19 pandemic,” said Aldo Rosales, a research assistant in the Maize Quality Laboratory at the International Maize and Wheat Improvement Center (CIMMYT).

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