Friday, 8 December 2017

The First International Conference of the World Iodine Association…by Olivier Humphrey

Delegates from BGS and the University of Nottingham at the
World Iodine Association conference
In November 2017 a group of students from BGS and the University of Nottingham researching iodine geochemistry and its affect on human health attended the World Iodine Association’s first international conference ‘Iodine in Food Systems and Health’ in Pisa, Italy. The international conference aimed to bring together scientists and other stakeholders working on various aspects of iodine in food systems, to increase understanding on how variations in the earth’s supply of iodine affect human and animal health.

Iodine is an essential micronutrient involved in the production of the thyroid hormones, essential for all mammalian life. Approximately one-third of the world’s population are at risk of iodine deficiency disorders (IDDs). The most common outcome of iodine deficiency is goitre, a swelling of the thyroid gland, however, the most severe effects occur during foetal development; leading to stillbirth, cretinism and mental impairment. The most widely-used method for reducing IDD is implementing iodised salt programmes; however, poor treatment, food processing, losses through volatisation and implementation reduces its effectiveness.

The conference welcome reception was held at the Domus Comeliana, a charming house situated next to the world famous leaning tower. It was here we were given introductory presentations regarding the history of iodine and human health by Dr Elizabeth Pearce. The great work conducted by various organisations towards eliminating global IDD was highlighted by Prof Michael B Zimmermann. After these opening talks, we had our iodine enriched gala dinner consisting of fish, cheeses and, of course, pasta.

Posing in front of the leaning tower of Pisa
I couldn’t resist!
The remainder of the conference was held at the Palazzo dei Congressi where talks were divided into multiple sessions addressing various iodine research related themes. The presentations given covered a wide range of topics including technical hurdles, salt iodisation, international stakeholder organisations’ opinions, before looking at iodine in soil, water and atmosphere. The next step, after looking at iodine in the environment, is to assess iodine in food and health. Dr Sarah Bath, a lecturer in public health nutrition at the University of Surrey, discussed nutritional recommendations for iodine and whether they can be met via dietary sources. Alongside these presentations, there were talks monitoring the iodine status of populations, industrial applications and iodine deficiency and excess in humans and animals.

The final session focused on agronomic biofortification of agricultural produce with iodine and I presented my current work investigating iodine uptake, translocation and storage mechanisms in spinach. Not only was this the World Iodine Association’s first international conference, it was the first conference I had given a presentation at! Despite the wide use of iodised salt, approximately 2 billion people are at risk of IDD, therefore we need to improve and add to current preventative treatments. The fortification of food with iodine is another strategy that can be used to reduce the risk of IDD, however, there is a lack of understanding of how iodine behaves in plants. In general, iodine has positive effects on plants when applied at a low concentration in soils, nutrient solution or foliar sprays. Despite the apparent positive effects on plant growth, the uptake pathways of iodine remain unknown and translocation pathways once absorbed by plants are still disputed. In my research, I have conducted a number of experiments to grasp a fundamental understanding of iodine-plant dynamics and have used isotopically labelled iodine tracers to trace the movement through spinach roots to show that uptake follows both active and passive pathways. This work, and recently published papers, indicates that agronomic biofortification could have a much larger role in tackling IDDs.

Whilst in Pisa, we also visited some key tourist spots, including: the square of miracles where we saw the Cathedral of Santa Maria Assunta - Duomo, the Baptistery, the Camposanto and the Tower, ate pizza and gelato (when in Rome…). We also managed to spend an afternoon in Lucca, a small city famous for its intact Renaissance-era city walls that surround the city. We wandered around and through the city before climbing the Guinigi Tower, a 45 metre high tower in the middle of the city with seven holm oak trees planted at the top.

My overall impression was that the conference was a great success, the quality of all talks were fantastic and the inclusion of researchers from various backgrounds all investigating iodine was brilliant.

The PhD is supervised under the umbrella of the Centre for Environmental Geochemistry: Dr Scott Young, Dr Liz Bailey and Professor Neil Crout (University of Nottingham) and Dr Louise Ander and Dr Michael Watts (BGS).

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