Seed companies are beating a path to the office of a professor at Jawaharlal Nehru University in New Delhi, entranced by the commercial prospects of his discovery of a single gene that could greatly improve the quality of proteins in plants. In a major breakthrough, Asis Datta, professor of molecular biology and biochemistry, isolated the gene from common ramdana (Amaranthus hypochondriacus). The amaranthus, originally a New World staple, is rich in proteins and is now being increasingly grown and consumed in India's hill ranges.
The amaranthus protein contains almost twice the amount of the amino acid lysine in wheat, there times the amount in maize and about as much as is found in milk -- the accepted standard of nutritional excellence. Though rich in protein, most seed plants are often deficient in essential amino acids -- the building blocks of proteins. Cereals such as rice and wheat, for example, are deficient in lysine and some legumes such as peas, are deficient in the sulphur-containing amino acids methionine and cysteine. For years, plant breeders have tried in vain improve the balance of essential amino acids of important crop plants.
Now, Datta has isolated what he calls a storage protein gene or seed specific gene from amaranthus, which encodes a particular protein that contains a high level of essential amino acids. Interestingly, the amino acid composition of this protein corresponds closely to the optimum standard of human nutrition, as recommended by WHO.
"The discovery has very important implications for human nutrition," said Datta. He explained that with further research it may be possible to use genetic engineering techniques to incorporate this gene into more widely consumed cereals and legumes, by inducing them to produce proteins with optimum amino acid distribution and concentration.
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