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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Geneticists Create Rice With Added Nutrient

In experiments that could lead to a major advance in global nutrition, scientists say they have genetically engineered rice so it provides vitamin A.

Plant researchers from Switzerland, Germany and the United States announced Jan. 13 the production of "golden" rice that contains the vital nutrient beta carotene, which is turned into vitamin A in the body.

If the engineered rice plants prove viable in agriculture, and if the golden grains prove acceptable in rice-consuming areas of the world, the achievement could have enormous impact. At present, some 124 million children worldwide are vitamin A deficient.

Success of the experiment was reported by plant genetic researcher Xudong Ye and six colleagues in the Jan. 14 edition of the journal Science. They said that three genes necessary to have beta carotene produced and incorporated into rice seeds were inserted into rice plants, and seem to work properly.

Ye and four other members of the research team work at the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology in Zurich, Switzerland. The others are at the University of Freiberg in Germany, Agracetus Monsanto Inc. in Wisconsin and Paradigm Genetics Inc. in North Carolina.

Biologist Mary Lou Guerinot, at Dartmouth University in New Hampshire, said such work is needed because "half of the world's population eat rice daily and depend on it as their staple food." Unfortunately, she added, "rice is a poor source of many essential micronutrients and vitamins."

In Southeast Asia, 70 percent of the children under the age of five suffer from vitamin A deficiency, leading to vision impairment and increased susceptibility to disease. The United Nations Children's Fund, Guerinot said, estimates that "improved vitamin A nutrition could prevent 1 million to 2 million deaths each year among children aged 1 to 4 years."

Scientists still need to run breeding programs to establish the newly engineered rice as stable varieties and do field tests to make sure the varieties are vigorous and productive.

Acceptance by local populations is also crucial. About 20 years ago, corn breeders developed several varieties containing elevated amounts of lysine, essential to the human diet. Experts said the new corn was almost as nutritious as whole milk.

But many people in the world's major corn-consuming regions wouldn't eat it because the "opaque" corn looked different.

Safety fears should be minimal, Guerinot said, because rice plants normally make some beta carotenes during growth.

In the future, she said, scientists will want to add other vital nutrients, such as iron, and many of the 13 essential vitamins into major crop plants.

The research was funded by the Rockefeller Foundation, the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology and European Community Biotech Program.