Dil Thavarajah understands the importance of lentils and beans in the diet of billions of people in developing countries.
When she was growing up in Sri Lanka, Thavarajah ate lentils three times a day, a very common diet.
"This is called poor man's meat," she said. I can't imagine any occasion like a wedding or funeral without lentils. It's just a major food."
Today, Thavarajah leads a group of North Dakota researchers looking for ways to make lentils, chickpeas and beans more nutritious. Long recognized as a good cheap source of protein, the plants are known as pulse crops, a name derived from the Greek word for porridge.
Thavarajah, a plant physiologist at North Dakota State University in Fargo, is convinced they can also be a good source of essential nutrients, and help improve the lives of countless people worldwide.
According to the World Health Organization, more than two billion people are anemic because they don't receive enough iron in their diet. More than 250,000 children go blind every year because they lack vitamin A.
"If we can have in our lentils, or pea, or chickpea not only beta carotene, but selenium, iron, zinc, it's like a whole food," Thavarajah said. "It will be fabulous, and fantastic."
This quest started a few years ago when Thavarajah was a post-graduate student at Stanford University, where she learned to use a piece of equipment by examining the chemical profile of lentils.
"It was an accident that we were looking at some of the seeds," said Thavarajah [who recalls thinking?], 'Oh my God, there's a lot of selenium and they are bioavailable.' "
Nutrients that are bioavailable are easily absorbed by humans. That's critical. That's an important factor, as some plants have nutrients that pass through the digestive system unused.
Thavarajah landed in North Dakota because the state is a leading producer of lentils and peas in the United States, and has the countries only lab focused on this kind of research.
Researchers at the new lab include her husband, Thava, a chemist; Kevin Mcphee, a plant breeder; and Dr. Gerry Combs, director of the USDA Human Nutrition Lab. They work with researchers in Austrialia, Bangladesh and India who all share the goal of finding crop varieties with the most available nutrients.
Equipment runs 24 hours a day in the small lab at North Dakota State analyzing ground up seed samples. Some of these samples are from North Dakota and some are from Australia. Others are from wild varieties grown for centuries in Middle Eastern countries.
The research is partly funded by the Northern Pulse Growers and Harvest Plus, an international organization working to improve micronutrients in crops.
It took Dil Thavarajah five years to find the best plant varieties for selenium. In the next five years she expects to find the best plants for iron, zinc and Vitamin A.
McPhee, who uses traditional crop breeding to create a new variety rich in micronutrients, is in the third year of the plant-breeding program. Each new variety takes as long as 10 years to develop.
But McPhee said the result will open new markets for farmers who grow and export the pulse crops.
"The crops have been marketed quite successfully based on physical appearance, size, shape, color. That's been good enough," he said. "But now we are in a sense, redefining what quality is. If we're able to provide a whole food that has high nutritional value, to international populations, the potential impacts are very big and really quite exciting."
The change could improve the health of millions around the world. Closer to home it could mean expanded markets and higher prices for the North Dakota farmers who grow the crops.