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Lessons from apple seeds, potato buds, and nutmeg junkies

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In an era of intensive farming and global trade, we take our food plants for granted. But if our ancient ancestors had not learned to deal with such natural poisons as a cyanide-producing compound in cassava, our modern diet would be severely restricted. Unfortunately, farmers in some places now neglect ancient wisdom.

So it is with cassava root, one of the most important food sources in tropical countries. It contains linamarin, a well-known cyanogen - a compound that produces cyanide when eaten. Rushing to get their crop to market, some farmers shortcut the traditional processing that removes linamarin. This puts millions of cassava eaters at risk for cyanide poisoning.

Enter modern genetic engineering to eliminate the problem at its root. Ohio State University in Columbus reports that plant biologists Richard Sayre and Dimuth Siritunga have created a cassava variety whose roots are essentially cyanogen free. Professor Sayre notes that this is particularly important for sub-Saharan Africa, where, he says, "improperly processed cassava is a major problem.... If we could eliminate the cyanogens in cassava, the plant wouldn't need to be processed before it's eaten."

Cassava is one of many common foods we eat without concern because centuries, even millenniums, of trial and error experience and cultivation have taught us how to make them wholesome.


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