Overexpression of Hydroxynitrile Lyase in Cassava Roots Elevates Protein and Free Amino Acids while Reducing Residual Cyanogen Levels

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Cassava is the major source of calories for more than 250 million Sub-Saharan Africans, however, it has the lowest protein-to-energy ratio of any major staple food crop in the world. A cassava-based diet provides less than 30% of the minimum daily requirement for protein. Moreover, both leaves and roots contain potentially toxic levels of cyanogenic glucosides. The major cyanogen in cassava is linamarin which is stored in the vacuole. Upon tissue disruption linamarin is deglycosylated by the apolplastic enzyme, linamarase, producing acetone cyanohydrin. Acetone cyanohydrin can spontaneously decompose at pHs >5.0 or temperatures >35°C, or is enzymatically broken down by hydroxynitrile lyase (HNL) to produce acetone and free cyanide which is then volatilized. Unlike leaves, cassava roots have little HNL activity. The lack of HNL activity in roots is associated with the accumulation of potentially toxic levels of acetone cyanohydrin in poorly processed roots. We hypothesized that the over-expression of HNL in cassava roots under the control of a root-specific, patatin promoter would not only accelerate cyanogenesis during food processing, resulting in a safer food product, but lead to increased root protein levels since HNL is sequestered in the cell wall. Transgenic lines expressing a patatin-driven HNL gene construct exhibited a 2–20 fold increase in relative HNL mRNA levels in roots when compared with wild type resulting in a threefold increase in total root protein in 7 month old plants. After food processing, HNL overexpressing lines had substantially reduced acetone cyanohydrin and cyanide levels in roots relative to wild-type roots. Furthermore, steady state linamarin levels in intact tissues were reduced by 80% in transgenic cassava roots. These results suggest that enhanced linamarin metabolism contributed to the elevated root protein levels.

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