Dil Thavarajah

Fighting ‘Hidden Hunger’

Dil Thavarajah is working to develop more nutritious lentils

Growing up on the island of Sri Lanka, Dil Thavarajah ate lentils three times a day. It was her family’s main source of protein. Now, the familiar ingredient is one of her primary research focus areas.

An associate professor at Clemson and a trained pulse crop physiologist, Thavarajah studies the lentil plant as a whole system, linking it to human health and exploring how to make it a more viable crop for all farmers regardless of geographic location — and she hopes the results will help combat malnutrition worldwide.

While the word malnutrition might conjure up a visual of starvation, it actually doesn’t just mean someone is underfed. A person can be obese and still be considered malnourished. But how?

Calorie-rich diets have played a critical role in creating this global phenomenon. Although individuals appear to be getting the food they need calorically, they are still suffering from micronutrient malnutrition or “hidden hunger.”

Malnutrition is a crisis that can affect anyone and can cause deficiencies that impact physical growth, organ function and immune system development, resulting in an economic burden for health care systems worldwide.

Thavarajah is responding to this crisis directly through scientific research and educational programs.

“I’ve really enjoyed looking at how lentils can impact obesity — and not only can they combat obesity, they can also combat hunger,” Thavarajah says. “They are full of micronutrients, protein and prebiotic carbohydrates, elements our bodies need. Some of our preliminary studies indicate that regular lentil consumption positively changes the gut’s microbiome, increasing digestive heath and propelling the body’s functionality.”

In addition to exploring the health effects of lentils, Thavarajah is looking at the crop through a new lens. Her expansive knowledge of pulse crop phenotyping — the process of predicting an organism’s characteristics using genetic information — has made her an internationally renowned leader in the field of biofortification. Each year, the strains of lentils being grown change due to yield and how the plants respond to diseases. Breeders look to Thavarajah to identify the best collections and to ensure they are using the best strain possible for their climate and location.

“If you can have a better variety released in the next five years with a high prebiotic carbohydrate that will further help combat these issues, and if I can work to educate the U.S. population to eat more lentils instead of soda and chips, well, that’s my job, and that’s success,” Thavarajah says.

Thavarajah is now taking her expertise a step further with a new study. She’s looking at the role climate plays and how to breed the most nutritious varieties possible in different environments.

Lentils are not typically grown in the Carolinas because the weather lends itself to fungal disease that can kill the crop. Predominately found in Mediterranean climates, lentils also flourish in states like Washington and the Dakotas, but that doesn’t mean they can’t one day be grown in South Carolina.

While Thavarajah explores how to make these plants more nutritious through phenotyping, she’s turning to conventional breeding to find ways to make lentils a viable crop for South Carolina farmers. Working with Stephen Kresovich, Clemson University’s Robert and Lois Coker Trustees Endowed Chair of Genetics, and doctoral student Nathan Johnson, on a study funded by the USDA, they are addressing plant breeding for agricultural production.

“The development and selection of nutritionally superior lentils will bring significant nutritional, economical and agricultural sustainability benefits to America,” Thavarajah says. “It might seem like lentils are a long shot for South Carolina farmers, but I believe that it will be done during my tenure at Clemson.”

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