Background: Anemia is thought to affect up to 1.6 billion people worldwide. One of the major contributors to low iron (Fe) absorption is a higher proportion of cereals compared to meats and pulse crops in people’s diets. This has now become a problem in both the developed and developing world, as a result of both modern food choice and food availability. Bread wheat accounts for 20% of the calories consumed by humans and is an important source of protein, vitamins and minerals meaning it could be a major vehicle for bringing more bioavailable Fe into the diet.
Results: To investigate whether breeding for higher concentrations of Fe in wheat grains could help increase Fe absorption, a multiparent advanced generation intercross (MAGIC) population, encompassing more than 80% of UK wheat polymorphism, was grown over two seasons in the UK. The population was phenotyped for both Fe concentration and Fe bioavailability using an established Caco-2 cell bioassay. It was found that increasing Fe levels in the grains was not correlated with higher Fe bioavailability and that the underlying genetic regions controlling grain Fe levels do not co-localise with increased Fe absorption. Furthermore, we show that phytate levels do not correlate with Fe bioavailability in our wheat population and thus phytate-binding is insufficient to explain the lack of correlation between Fe bioavailability and Fe concentrations in the wheat grain. Finally, we observed no (Fe bioavailability) or low (Fe concentration) correlation between years for these traits, confirming that both are under strong environmental influence.
Conclusions: This suggests that breeders will have to select not only for Fe levels directly in grains, but also increased bioavailability.