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May 26, 2020

Researchers earn grant to study fungus that causes liver cancer

Felicia Wu, John A. Hannah Distinguished Professor in the Department of Food Science and Human Nutrition and Department of Agricultural, Food and Resource Economics, and David Hennessy, Elton R. Smith Chair in the Department of Agricultural, Food and Resource Economics, were recently awarded a $478,000 USDA-National Institute of Food and Agriculture, or NIFA, grant of for their project "Aflatoxin Reduced By Bt Corn? Examining Crop Insurance Claims for Real World Impacts of Technologies for Food Safety."

This grant will allow the team to examine whether transgenic, or genetically modified, Bt corn has lower levels of a certain fungal toxin, aflatoxin, that causes liver cancer. Aflatoxin is produced by fungi that infect corn when there is insect damage – you may have noticed that vegetables and fruits that were eaten by insects often have a ring of mold around the insect bites.

Bt corn is genetically modified to produce pesticides that target insects, but it is harmless to humans and other animals, and has less insect damage, and therefore less fungal infection. Does this mean that Bt corn can reduce the presence of aflatoxin? If so, then it could have huge economic and health benefits. Aflatoxin causes liver cancer, and therefore the FDA controls it strictly, sometimes at a substantial cost to corn growers, Wu said.

“We will use crop insurance claims around the United States from corn growers in 2001-2016 to determine if aflatoxin-related insurance claims are decreased as a function of Bt corn planting,” Wu said.

Jina Yu, professor at Beijing Normal University-Hong Kong Baptist University United International College and former Wu Ph.D. student contributed to preliminary research on Bt corn and aflatoxin reduction for the grant. Another collaborator on this grant is Gary Munkvold, professor of plant pathology and microbiology at Iowa State University.

By: Zach Richardson

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