A genetic breakthrough has allowed the engineering of multiple vitamins into a single plant for the first time, in hopes of granting a nutritive boost in the diet of developing countries.
Though genetic engineering has previously been used to enhance vitamin content in a variety of crops such as rice, potatoes, lettuce and tomatoes, this will mark the first time that scientists have been able to intensify multiple vitamins in a single plant.
European scientists have genetically modified (GM) and engineered a vitamin-fortified corn designed to increase consumption of three key nutrients, which millions of people in developing countries are in dire need of.
These modifications are responsible for causing the corn to produce high levels of beta-carotene and precursors of vitamin C and folic acid.
The research delineates how the South African white corn was created in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS).
To embed the genes into the corn’s DNA, they are attached to microscopic gold particles covered with DNA and shot into immature corn embryos. If received by the embryo, this would change its internal biochemical processes causing it to produce the desired vitamins.
According to the study, the analysis of sample plants grown from the genetically modified seeds shows that the genes have successfully manipulated the corn into producing vitamins over four subsequent generations.
Dr Christou and his colleagues, from universities in Spain and in Germany noted in their paper that the amount of vitamins produced “vastly exceeds” anything yielded by conventional plant breeding methods.
Plants have been produced that are fortified with one vitamin, but this only has the potential to curb one deficiency at a time.
Scientists believe that by producing a plant that carries three vitamins, poorer nations surviving on an unbalanced diet could be greatly helped.
Researchers estimate that by consuming 100-200g of fortified corn, a person is provided with almost their entire recommended daily intake of vitamin A, folic acid and 20% of the necessary ascorbate.
“Our research is humanitarian in nature and targets impoverished people in developing countries. This specific project is targeted towards sub-Saharan Africa,” Dr. Christou told BBC News.
He claims that they exclusively receive public funding and have no commercial restraints or vested interest.
Dr. Christou said the recent success in the lab work is leading to the onset of field trials to be held in the U.S in 2010.
When they conclude the field trials, they hope to be able to have enough data to begin trying it in Africa.
“We will soon embark on animal studies to generate efficacy and safety data, which will be required at some point,” said Christou.
Prof Jonathan Napier, research leader at the UK’s Rothamsted Research Institute compares the work by Dr. Christou and his colleagues to a similar work done on something called “golden rice”, only producing much greater levels of vitamin A.
He pointed to farmers and agriculturists who have been breeding crops to resist disease, and yield a greater and easier harvest.
He noted that the only difference is that the introduction of more advanced technology allows one to opt for more important traits such as nutrition.
However, he said, the process of getting the product from the lab to the field and ultimately for wide-scale use would be full of obstacles and would not be quickly accomplished.
He said the approval process alone would be arduous and time consuming, “But it’s important to make sure that the technology works, is stable and is evaluated as well as possible.”
A Differing View
There are many who oppose genetic modification and present a far more skeptical view to the process.
Clare Oxborrow from campaign group Friends of the Earth gives caution about genetically modifying crops.
She points out that it is “virtually impossible” to monitor and ensure that the people consuming the crop are receiving the proper amount of vitamins which the plants had been modified to produce.
She suggests that the real issue is that impoverished people lack access to any variety of food, therefore fortifying one plant could not solve the problem at hand.
Instead of investing in “expensive, untested and potentially risky GM “Ëœtechnofixes'”, she goes on to commend using research efforts to help people grow and gain access to a broader range of foods which would have much greater impact on health in the long run.
She adds, “Supporting families to grow green leafy vegetables in their communities can ensure sufficient levels of vitamin A, as well as a host of other nutrients and vitamins that a narrow GM fix would not even begin to solve.”
- Beta carotene – becomes Vitamin A – good for skin, eyesight, embryonic development, fertility and the immune system
- Folate – folic acid – helps with red blood cell formation and many genetic processes, aids development of fetus during pregnancy
- Ascorbate – becomes Vitamin C – essential for skin proteins and wound-healing and stimulates the immune system
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