Science - May 12, 2005

Hunt is on for toxins in Sudan

Wageningen researchers are planning to examine what quantities of mycotoxins the population absorbs through food. ‘A few years ago a trainee research assistant (AIO) at Wageningen established that many Sudanese chronically absorb excessive amounts of mycotoxins from infected peanuts,’ says Dr Ron Hoogenboom of Rikilt. ‘But that is probably just the tip of the iceberg.’

Hoogenboom paid a visit to the Sudanese capital, Khartoum, for a workshop, together with Professor Pieter van ’t Veer of the sub-department of Human Nutrition. A few years ago the latter supervised the PhD research of Dr Ragaa Omer, which examined the quantities of mycotoxins that the Sudanese consume through peanuts. Omer was the organiser of the workshop and hopes that together with the Wageningen researchers they can obtain money from Wotro for further research. Wotro is the tropical department of NWO (Netherlands Organisation for Scientific Research).

‘This time we want to look at sorghum,’ tells Hoogenboom. ‘This is an important crop, especially for the poor in Sudan. The problems arise when farmers start to store the sorghum after harvesting it. Sometimes water gets into the storage pits and fungi start to grow. Our main focus is the Aspergillus fungi that produce aflatoxin and ochratoxin. Aflatoxin causes cancer of the liver; ochratoxin is believed to be responsible for kidney failure.

Farmers and consumers often find fungus in their sorghum, but cannot afford to throw the food away. For the poor in particular, who are also exposed to mycotoxins from peanuts, the exposure levels may be very high. Doctors however have no data on kidney failure, but in a poor country like Sudan that does not say much. ‘The poor have little access to medical care in Sudan,’ says Hoogenboom. ‘The elite do have access to medical care, but consumer lower amounts of mycotoxins. They have a largely western diet and are therefore less dependent on traditional products such as sorghum and peanuts.’

In the Wotro proposal the Wageningen scientists from Rikilt and the Toxicology and Human Nutrition chair groups want to outline how they can teach their Sudanese colleagues to trace the mycotoxins. They then want to examine the quantities of mycotoxins that the Sudanese consume and take measures to reduce the amounts of toxins in the food.

Hoogenboom thinks that the Wageningen researchers can achieve a lot in Sudan. ‘The country has good infrastructure and good researchers, many of whom have had a Western education,’ says Hoogenboom. ‘The equipment is there, I’ve seen the instruments, but they are lying idle. The Sudanese don’t know how to use them: no one has ever told them.’

/ WK

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