The first multi-nutrient genetically modified rice has been created could one day offer vital vitamins and minerals to parts of the world where nutrition cannot be taken for granted.
Researchers from ETH Zurich, the same university lab behind the famous “Golden rice”, have been steadily working to improve the effectiveness of the grain, and have now announced the creation of a modified rice strain that includes iron, zinc, and beta-carotene – a precursor of vitamin A.
Golden Rice is what a genetically engineered variant of rice became known as in the early 2000s. Created to help combat malnutrition or “hidden hunger” in developing parts of the world where rice is eaten to stave off starvation, though it offers little essential micronutrients, it is now grown all over Southeast Asia, where it is literally saving lives.
Golden rice was one of the first genetically engineered rice strains to include beta-carotene. A vitamin A deficiency in children can cause a weakened immune system, leaving them vulnerable to everything from malaria to measles, as well as potentially leading to blindness.
Subsequent engineered strains of rice and wheat have been bred to address the other most common deficiencies in developing countries – namely iron and zinc. A lack of iron leads to anemia, hinders brain development, and in women and children particularly, increases the risk of mortality. According to the WHO, around 40 percent of preschool children in developing countries are thought to be anemic.
Zinc is essential for the healthy running of the gut and immune system, central nervous system, reproductive system, and skeletal growth, to name just a few. A zinc deficiency increases the chances of contracting pneumonia, diarrhea, and malaria, all of which can result in death.
However, each variety of genetically modified rice has only been able to provide one particular micronutrient each. Combining several micronutrients in one plant was “a dream that had not been realized.” Until now.
Now researchers led by Navreet Bhullar, senior scientist at the Laboratory of Plant Biotechnology at ETH Zurich, have successfully bred a variant of rice that combines all three. Their results, published in Scientific Reports, show a proof-of-concept for the multi-nutrient enrichment of rice from a single genetic locus, effectively tackling three of the biggest and most dangerous micronutrient deficiencies in the developing world in one go.
So far, the new variant is still in the testing phase, having been grown in greenhouses. Next year, it will be trialed in the ground to ensure it is robust enough to be grown out in the field.
“It will probably be five years before the multi-nutrient rice can be used to reduce hidden hunger,” Bhullar pointed out in a statement. But what a goal.