Biotech Updates

GM Rice to Combat Iron Deficiency

July 24, 2009

Researchers at the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology (ETH) in Zurich have developed rice plants that contain six times more iron in polished rice kernels. The high-iron rice may prove to be important in fighting iron-deficiency, particularly in developing nations in Asia and Africa where rice is the main caloric source. More than two billion people, or almost 30 percent of the world's population, suffer from iron deficiency, according to the World Health Organization. Consequences of iron malnutrition include anemia, poor mental development and depressed immune system.

The high-iron rice plants express two genes to produce the enzyme nicotianamin synthase, which mobilizes iron, and the protein ferritin, which stores iron. According to the researchers, the synergistic action of these proteins allows the rice plant to absorb more iron from the soil and store it in the rice kernel. Rice naturally has a lot of iron, but only in the seed coat. In countries with tropical or sub-tropical climates, however, the seed coat has to be removed for storage.

"Agronomic evaluation of the high-iron rice lines did not reveal a yield penalty or significant changes in agronomic traits, except for a tendency to earlier flowering," wrote Wilhelm Gruissem, a scientist at ETH Zurich's Department of Biology, and colleagues in a paper published by the Plant Biotechnology Journal.

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