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13 August, 2018 10:51:31 AM

Beta carotene-rich rice can fight vitamin-A deficiency

The first generation Golden Rice known as GR1 was developed through infusing genes from daffodil
Prof. Sarwar Md. Saifullah Khaled
Beta carotene-rich rice can fight vitamin-A deficiency

The World Health Organization's (WHO)’s global vitamin-A deficiency (VAD) database show that one in every five pre-school children in Bangladesh is vitamin A-deficient. And among the pregnant women, 23.7 percent suffer from VAD. The breeders at the Bangladesh Rice Research Institute (BRRI), upon receipts of positive outcome from two successive years of “confined” field trials, have just gone for a final cycle of multi-location field trials. They have now sought regulatory approval from the government for an “unconfined” field test prior to seeking variety release approval.

Thus the Bangladeshi rice scientists have finally advanced beta carotene-rich rice to a varietal release stage. Beta carotene, also known as pro-vitamin A, is a substance that the human body can convert to vitamin A. So this amounts to heralding a new era in fight against vitamin-A deficiency (VAD). The Bangladesh rice scientists said that the wait is nearly over for release of Golden Rice, a long touted remedy to VAD. Since the colour of the rice is golden it is also termed as Golden Rice.   

The BRRI opined that in the last Boro season it has got 10 to 12 μg/g (micrograms/gram) beta carotene in a BRRI dhan29 lines genetically converted into Golden Rice. That should be enough to address half of rice-eating consumers' daily deficiency of vitamin-A. The BRRI scientists, now overseeing the Golden Rice programme, explained that "This (Boro) season we've gone for 'confined' field trials in five different agro-ecological locations again. Besides, we've also sought permission for an open field trial prior (to) starting the process of varietal release".

An International Rice Research Institute (IRRI)’s scientist, who recently visited Bangladesh, opined that Bangladeshi rice scientists have advanced the beta carotene-rich rice to a stage very close to release of Golden Rice. He opined that the Philippines, Indonesia are also developing the Golden Rice “but I think Bangladesh is marching ahead".

A long wait is nearly over, with this development, for rice breeders who have been trying since 1999 for a varietal development and release of Golden Rice. This was long being touted by the rice scientist fraternity as a key remedy to acute VAD problem. The Bangladesh rice scientists analysed the post-harvest data collected from the first field test conducted on – “GR2E BRRI dhan29” – during the 2015-2016 Boro season. And again the data generated from multi-location trials conducted in 2016-2017 Boro season drawing a conclusion that the results are positive. A BRRI's scientist, who recently visited IRRI, is of the opinion that 10 μg/g beta-carotene in GR2E BRRI dhan29 is good enough to meet 50 percent of vitamin-A needs of people consuming rice in their daily diet.

The vitamin A-rich Golden Rice was first developed by splicing three foreign genes – two from daffodil and one from a bacterium – into japonica rice, a variety adapted to temperate climates. It is capable of producing beta carotene. But for a better beta carotene expression in rice, the daffodil genes were replaced by maize genes later in 2005. None of the major diseases like blast, sheath blight, bacterial blight and tungro was observed in the transgenic GR2E BRRI dhan29. And the yield was on average 10 percent higher than that of the BRRI dhan29  (check variety) with good expression of beta carotene.

The Bangladeshi rice scientists have been at the forefront of Golden Rice research since the development of this transgenic rice by Swiss and German rice scientists in 1999. The process gathered momentum only when an IRRI plant biotechnologist, infused the genes responsible for beta carotene into BRRI dhan29 in 2002-2003. Rice scientists at Swiss Federal Institute of Technology in Zurich, and the University of Freiburg in Germany first applied the genetic engineering technology to derive vitamin A in rice back in 1999. All renowned journals and news magazines, including the Nature, the Science and the Time, covered the breakthrough in 2000.

The first generation Golden Rice known as GR1 was developed through infusing genes from daffodil. But later the second generation variety known as GR2 was developed by taking a gene from corn as it gave much better expression of pro-vitamin A. Some six lines of GR2 – scientifically called "Events" – were developed and the IRRI chose to work on one called GR2R. The IRRI developed and subsequently infused it in Filipino and Bangladeshi rice varieties. After years of lab and greenhouse tests on GR2R, the Philippines and Bangladesh eventually halted the process upon an IRRI advice that Event GR2E would work better.

As per Golden Rice inventors there were some problems with the Event GR2R. They said the new Event should work well. The IRRI scientist who infused beta carotene-producing genes into Bangladesh's best performing rice variety, BRRI dhan29, said that he was looking forward to see Golden Rice goes to growers' fields. The BRRI dhan29, developed by BRRI in 1994, is the most productive dry season rice variety of Bangladesh. It has gone beyond national boundaries to be grown in many other countries including India, China, Vietnam, Nepal, Bhutan and Myanmar.

Rice does not contain beta carotene. Therefore, dependence on rice as the predominant food source necessarily leads to vitamin-A deficiency. Such vitamin-A deficiency in rice most severely affects small children and pregnant women. Consumption of only 150 gram of Golden Rice a day is expected to supply half of the recommended daily intake (RDA) of vitamin A for an adult. For 70 percent of their daily calorie intakes the people in Bangladesh depend on rice. The main cause of preventable blindness in children is vitamin-A deficiency. And globally some 6.7 million children die every year and another 3, 50,000 go blind because they are vitamin-A deficient.

The Seattle-based Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, in April 2011, sanctioned a grant of over US $10 million to IRRI to fund, develop and evaluate Golden Rice varieties for Bangladesh and the Philippines. Further funding was also made available later. The Golden Rice inventors and subsequent technology developer allowed a royalty-free access to the patents. In consequence, the officials concerned at IRRI and Gates Foundation said that the new rice would be of the same price as other rice varieties once released for commercial farming in Bangladesh. Moreover, the growers would be able to share and replant the seeds as they wish. The rice scientists are of the opinion that two countries – Australia and New Zealand – already cleared this biotech rice product for consumption in those countries both as food and feed. A review is underway in the United States (US) by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) to clear this biotech rice product for consumption. However, Bangladesh is yet to start the Golden Rice release process.  

The writer is a retired Professor of Economics, BCS General Education Cadre



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Editor : M. Shamsur Rahman
Published by the Editor on behalf of Independent Publications Limited at Media Printers, 446/H, Tejgaon I/A, Dhaka-1215.
Editorial, News & Commercial Offices : Beximco Media Complex, 149-150 Tejgaon I/A, Dhaka-1208, Bangladesh. GPO Box No. 934, Dhaka-1000.

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