The Golden Rice and It's Health Benefits


When I first heard the idea, I admit, I was a bit curious and confused at the same time. First thing is, why is it orange in colour? The other thing is, how in the world they created a golden rice?

According to Wiki, by definition, Golden rice is a variety of Oryza sativa rice produced through genetic engineering to biosynthesize beta-carotene, a precursor of vitamin A, in the edible parts of rice. The research was conducted with the goal of producing a fortified food to be grown and consumed in areas with a shortage of dietary vitamin A, a deficiency which is estimated to kill 670,000 children under 5 each year.

By the addition of three beta-carotene biosynthesis genes, Golden Rice differs from its parental strain. In the year 2000, the scientific details of the rice were first published in Science, the product of an eight-year project by Ingo Potrykus of the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology and Peter Beyer of the University of Freiburg. Golden rice was considered a significant breakthrough in biotechnology at the time of publication, as the researchers had engineered an entire biosynthetic pathway.

A new variety called Golden Rice 2, which produces up to 23 times more beta-carotene than the original golden rice, was announced in 2005. The Golden Rice has met with significant opposition from environmental and anti-globalization activists even though it was developed as a humanitarian tool.

The major source of morbidity (increased susceptibility to disease) and mortality worldwide are dietary micronutrient deficiencies, such as the lack of vitamin A, iodine, iron or zinc. Impairing their immune system and normal development, causing disease and ultimately death, these deficiencies affect particularly children. Hence, by way of a varied diet, rich in vegetables, fruits and animal products are the best way to avoid micronutrient deficiencies.

On the other hand, by way of nutrient-dense staple crops is the second best approach, especially for those who cannot afford a balanced diet. Sweet potatoes, for example, are available as varieties that are either rich or poor in provitamin A. Those producing and accumulating provitamin A (orange-fleshed sweet potatoes) are called biofortified, as opposed to the white-fleshed sweet potatoes, which do not accumulate provitamin A. In this case, what needs to be done is to introduce the biofortified varieties to people used to the white-fleshed varieties, as is happening at present in southern Africa by introducing South American varieties of orange-fleshed sweetpotatoes.

There are no natural provitamin A-containing rice varieties unfortunately. The absence of β-carotene in rice grains manifests itself in a marked incidence of blindness and susceptibility to disease in almost all rice-based societies, leading to an increased incidence of premature death of small children, in the chain's weakest link.

Not in the endosperm (the edible part of the seed), rice plants produce β-carotene (provitamin A) in green tissues. The outer coat of the dehusked grains—the so-called aleurone layer—contains a number of valuable nutrients, e.g. vitamin B and nutritious fats, but no provitamin A. But in the process of milling and polishing, these nutrients are lost with the bran fraction. The fatty components are affected by oxidative processes that make the grain turn rancid when exposed to air, while it would be desirable to keep those nutrients with the grain. Thus, unprocessed rice—also known as brown rice—is not apt for long-term storage.

Some of the required genes are turned off during development even though all of those required genes to produce provitamin A are present in the grain. This is where the ingenuity of the Golden Rice inventors, Profs Ingo Potrykus (formerly ETH Zurich) and Peter Beyer (University of Freiburg) comes into play. They figured out how to turn on this complex pathway again with a minor intervention.

Golden Rice is the brainchild of Profs Ingo Potrykus (ETH Zurich) and Peter Beyer (Univ of Freiburg), who in a collaborative effort were able to show that  using a minimum set of transgenes, production of β-carotene could be turned on in rice grains. From the beginning, under the guidance of the Golden Rice Humanitarian Board, Golden Rice was conceived as a public-good project. The initial prototype (Science 2000) was further improved in terms of provitamin A (β-carotene) content by a research team at Syngenta (Nature Biotechnology 2005). The project dealt mainly with breeding the novel trait into locally adapted rice varieties from 2005 to 2010. Along its way the project has been funded by a number of donors, including the Rockefeller Foundation, the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation (Grand Challenges in Global Health Initiative), USAID, the Philippine Department of Agriculture, HarvestPlus, the European Commission, Swiss Federal Funding, and the Syngenta Foundation. Several companies have provided free access to their patented technologies necessary to generate Golden Rice. The International Rice Research Institute (IRRI) in the Philippines carried out the current breeding and field trialling work together with PhilRice, the Philippine Rice Research Institute. PhilRice is preparing a submission to the regulatory authority of the Philippines in 2013, which could lead to initial releases to farmers in 2014. And the work doesn't stop there. Golden Rice will be heading towards China, India, Bangladesh, Indonesia, and Vietnam if the first hurdles are taken successfully. In those countries national programs are already involved in laying out the necessary groundwork.

A lot of Filipinos, especially those local farmers are against this platform. They are claiming that this is just a government bad propaganda to import rice. However, we should start to have some research on how this new bread of rice will benefit us, especially those who are living in the so called "third world countries".

The shocking fact is that, more than 10 million children under the age of five are still dying every year, far from reaching the envisaged Millenium Development Goals. However, through a better nutrition,  common diseases could be prevented and a high proportion of those children could be saved. This number has been equated with a ‘Nutritional Holocaust’. It is unfortunate that the world is not embracing more readily a
number of approaches with the potential to substantially reduce the number of deaths. It has been calculated that by providing those children with diets that included crops biofortified with provitamin A (beta-carotene) and zinc, the life of 25 percent of them could be spared. Golden Rice is such a biofortified crop. Those involved in the project are hopeful that in a near future Golden Rice will be growing in farmers' fields and helping to improve the diets of millions of people.

Golden Rice grains are easily recognisable by their yellow to orange colour. The stronger the colour the more β-carotene. It is hoped that the pleasant colour will help promote its adoption even though a yellow rice is still unfamiliar to most of us. According to research, once upon a time carrots were white or purple in colour. A few hundred years ago, orange-coloured carrots are the product of a mutation selected by a Dutch horticulturist, because it was the colour of the Dutch Royal House of Orange-Nassau!

Indeed, Golden Rice is the rice of the future! We really should reconsider the fact that we all, people as a whole will benefit from that!

Cheerio!

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