Sunday, September 25, 2011

Scientists find way to put iron in rice

ADELAIDE scientists have fortified rice so it can meet daily iron needs in a breakthrough that could create a super food for the world's under-nourished.

The breakthrough promises to provide a solution to the iron and zinc deficiency disorders that affect billions of people throughout the world.
Dr Alex Johnson, from the Australian Centre for Plant Functional Genomics, says the genetically modified rice has up to four times more iron than conventional rice and twice as much zinc.
"We just tricked the plant into thinking it doesn't have enough iron," he said. "By making the plant think it doesn't have enough iron, it takes up more iron and it puts more iron into the grain."
Rice is the main food source for roughly half the world's population including billions of people in developing countries across Asia, but the polished grain is too low in iron, zinc and Vitamin A to meet dietary needs.
Iron deficiency affects more than two billion people worldwide, so the race is on to produce grains with higher nutritional value.
PhD student Bianca Kyriacou has done the bulk of the work at the Plant Accelerator greenhouse in Urrbrae. She says it's a big achievement we all can be proud of.
"To compete against large organisations and labs that work on this and still be able to produce ground-breaking research, here in little old Adelaide, is pretty cool," she said.
"It's kind of empowering to know that from the labs here in Adelaide we're able to produce something this substantial . . . that is going to impact not just Australians but people all across the world."
The research, funded by the Australian Research Council and HarvestPlus, was published in the journal PLoS ONE.
Conventional breeding techniques have failed to achieve even half the level of nutrients required, so the scientists turned to biotechnology. They used a plant virus to boost the activity of a gene that naturally occurs in rice.
The team - including researchers from all three universities in South Australia and the University of Melbourne - is the first to raise rice plants in the greenhouse with the desired level of iron and zinc. Field trials began in the Philippines, in collaboration with the International Rice Research Institute.
It will take several seasons for the scientists to determine if the rice is growing properly and consistently taking up sufficient iron and zinc.
Then scientists will have to test whether animals can actually obtain more nutrients from the grain, before progressing to developing a product for human consumption.
Bangladesh would be the first country to try the product, because it's a developing country where the people rely heavily on rice.
Dr Johnson expects the entire process will take about a decade, so it will be a while before iron-rich rice appears on supermarket shelves, but the research opens the door to a range of new and improved super foods.
Personal trainer Palle Muus, 42, from Balance in North Adelaide says he gets his iron from meat and oats but he'd be happy to dose up on iron-rich GM rice.
"Iron is good for the transport of oxygen in the body," he said. "If you don't get enough iron you get tired, headaches and anaemia."


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