Targeted crop breeding may offer novel ways to benefit our microbiomes: Expert

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Speaking with NutraIngedients-USA via video, Dr Benson, who is also the Director at the Nebraska Food for Health Center, explained that much of the effort that goes into improving crops these days is oriented towards things aren’t necessarily directed at health, things like yield and production and agronomic traits and sustainability.

“Those are important – don’t get me wrong. But not a lot of effort is directed towards true characteristics of the crop that could actually be used in a targeted way to influence and/or improve human health.

“There are a couple of examples out there, with the Golden Rice that had the intention of improving human health, and we’re talking of things sort of like that but in a more refined, targeted and systematic way. So, the idea is, can we create crops and food crops in particular that can provide the dietary components that really elevate the levels of our diets, in terms of not just their nutritional characteristics but their ability to reduce the incidence of disease?

“So, given what we understand now about the gut microbiome and how the whole human gastrointestinal tract is working, can we start thinking much more holistically about the types of traits we’re breeding in these crops and how those can be used to influence human health?”

Dr Benson added that gut-active dietary components like fiber and polyphenols are among the most obvious traits to think about, but there does need to be a change in how we think about the plants.

“For the most part, the way we came to know about [fiber and polyphenols] was mostly through biochemical techniques: We would extract these components and purify them out of a grain, let’s say, and we’d finally get down to an enriched arabinoxylan fraction and then feed that to something and see what sort of effect it might have that would reflect health,” ​explained Dr Benson. “What we’re talking about here is an even broader approach, much more agnostic, that will capture not only those components but also other components that we don’t already know about.

“We do that through a very specific phenotyping process that allows us to identify phenotypes of the crop plant where variation may be influencing the human gut microbiome.

“The microbiome eats the same food we eat – it eats essentially the fraction of it that doesn’t get digested and absorbed in the upper GI tract. Fiber is one of the better known of those, and polyphenolics as well.”

“We’ve only studied those from the level of extracting these components out of the plants and feeding them to individuals or microbiomes or whatever the assay might be. But what we haven’t done is gone back and looked at the range of variation in that trait in the crops that are out there,” ​said Prof Benson. “Therein lies the opportunity.”

Agriculture & Health Summit

This is a topic that will be discussed in much more detail at the Agriculture & Health Summit, October 11-13. Dr Benson is part of the organizing committee for the event, which will also explore topics such as understanding the proper space for “Food for Health” products, exploring the complexity of the problem (for example, the interactions between diet, microbiome, host, and health/disease across populations), and commercializing innovation in the diet-microbiome space.

For more information about the inaugural Agriculture & Health Summit: Cultivating Gut Health at the Crossroads of Food & Medicine, please click HERE​.

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