The Golden Bullet

By Lauren Hoskin

The debate on genetic modification has been long and enduring. Some believe it could be the answer to dwindling resources and rising populations whilst others believe it poses new political threats and agricultural nightmares. However, whilst people in developed nations sit and discuss these issues, millions of people in less fortunate countries are dying of potentially preventable malnutrition.

One such form of malnutrition is vitamin A deficiency. Vitamin A is a vital nutrient, used in the production of red blood cells, immune cell activity, skeletal growth and fertility, as well as being used in the retina of the eye to form the pigment Rhodopsin. This special compound is essential to the absorption of light and hence our ability to see. However, going blind due to vitamin A deficiency could be just a precursor to numerous other fatal diseases. Many foods are rich in vitamin A, including some fruit and vegetables, eggs, cheeses and meats. The problem lies in that many people in poorer countries are not able to afford these foods, and are forced to rely on nutrient-deficit diets that mainly consist of only rice. An estimated 250 million pre-school children are currently vitamin A deficient, making this potentially preventable disease a serious health concern in 26 countries across Asia, Africa and Latin America.

The problem has not gone unnoticed. Programmes are in place to promote breastfeeding, another natural source of Vitamin A for babies, the use of supplementation tablets, food fortification and to encourage people in affected regions to grow their own fruit and vegetables.  But another slightly more controversial solution called Golden Rice was reached by an independent group of scientists. This genetically modified variety of rice produces its own vitamin A in the form of beta-carotene (this is the type that gives carrots their orange pigment). As a result, the grains are literally golden. It turns out that the endosperm, the nutritious and starchy part of rice, naturally holds the genetic machinery to produce beta-carotene, but the genes are ordinarily switched off. Two genes had to be inserted to switch them on, one of which was derived from the daffodil and the other from a type of bacteria called Erwinia uredovora. They were then inserted into rice embryos using another type of bacteria called Agrobacterium, which is able to transfer genes between itself and plants. The little GM rice babies then grow up to be golden.

Golden Rice is not expected to provide 100% of the vitamin A required, but it is progress. If farmers in these countries were to be given the seeds and their local communities could have access to the rice, many less children would grow up vitamin A deficient. There are still an abundance of issues related to this contentious subject such as unknown environmental and agricultural consequences, costs, and politics, but Golden Rice demonstrates an amazing use of genetic modification which really is potentially capable of saving hundreds of thousands of lives.