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Its the multi-nutrients versus the malnutrition

Almost 50 percent of people globally eat rice to meet their daily calorie needs. While a meal of rice stops hunger, it contains very few essential micronutrients, if any. As a consequence, large segments of the human population are malnourished, especially in Asia and Africa. They do not obtain enough iron, zinc, or vitamin A to stay healthy.

Therefore, 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.

In 2000, researchers developed a new rice variety to combat malnutrition, which became known as “Golden Rice.” This was one of the first genetically modified rice varieties in which the researchers could produce beta-carotene, the precursor of vitamin A, in the endosperm of the rice grain.

“Our results demonstrate that it is possible to combine several essential micronutrients—iron, zinc, and beta-carotene—in a single rice plant for healthy nutrition,” explains Navreet Bhullar, a senior scientist in the Laboratory of Plant Biotechnology at ETH Zurich and leader of the research.

Scientifically, the success was the engineering of a gene cassette containing four genes for the micronutrient improvement that could be inserted into the rice genome as a single genetic locus. This has the advantage that iron, zinc, and beta-carotene levels can be simultaneously increased by genetic crosses in rice varieties of various countries.

The new multi-nutrient rice lines are still in their testing phase. “We will improve the lines further,” says Bhullar. She plans to test the plants in confined field trials to determine if the micronutrient traits and agronomic properties are robust in the field as they are in the greenhouse.

Bhullar hopes that the new rice lines will be tested in the field next year. But she does not know yet when they are ready for production in farmer’s fields.

“It will probably be five years before the multi-nutrient rice can be used to reduce hidden hunger,” she says.

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