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Aflatoxins: the invisible enemy

They infiltrate our food supply through staple crops and lay waste to unsuspecting consumers. Dubbed the invisible enemy, aflatoxin is one of the most potent naturally-occurring toxins. It is produced by fungi belonging to the genus Aspergillus, and is a damaging type of mycotoxin. To better protect the food supply from this threat, during 01-13 February 2010, CIMMYT-El Batán hosted a workshop on mycotoxin detection in maize for members of its maize and wheat pathology teams.

The course, led by Veera Reddy of the International Crops Research Institute for the Semi-Arid Tropics (ICRISAT), focused on implementing the ELISA technique to identify resistant genotypes that result in reduced mycotoxins in grain. Though several tools for assaying mycotoxins in grain exist, the ELISA technique is cheaper than other options and allows large samples to be tested.

Breeding maize resistant to mycotoxins, specifically aflatoxins and fumonisins, is vital for ensuring a safe food supply. Both are wide-spread in nature, thrive in humid conditions, and frequently inhabit fields of cereal crops, such as maize. Mycotoxins in general are extremely resilient and once grain is contaminated, which can happen in the field and during storage, they prevail through digestion, cooking, and freezing. In this way, mycotoxins can reach humans not only through grain, but also through milk or meat from livestock raised on infected feed. And once consumed by humans, mycotoxins can cause cancer, liver disorder, birth defects, weakened immune systems, and even death.

The objective of the course was to implement at CIMMYT the ELISA assay for routine screening of maize in order to detect sources of resistance and make progress in the management of mycotoxin contamination. Participants agreed that the course presented valuable information and that they are now ready to apply the ELISA technique.

“We needed a cheap, simple, and robust assay that could be used to test large numbers of samples and could easily be implemented in our breeding program,” said George Mahuku, senior maize scientist/ pathologist. “We are very happy that through this course we were able to achieve our objectives and now the pathology group is motivated and ready to go.”