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Scientists Uncover Genetic Engineering Secret Behind Golden Rice Production

Scientists Uncover Genetic Engineering Secret Behind Golden Rice Production

Tuesday, 24 March, 2020 - 08:00
Laborers transplant rice seedlings in a paddy field in Qalyub, in the El-Kalubia governorate, northeast of Cairo, Egypt, June 1, 2016 | Reuters
Cairo- Hazem Badr

Scientists at the University of California have uncovered the secret behind the genetically engineered rice with high levels of beta-carotene, known as golden rice. The study was published this month in the Nature Communications journal.

Rice is a staple food crop for more than half the world's population. Golden Rice, a type of genetically engineered rice with high levels of beta-carotene, has been approved for consumption in more than five countries, including the Philippines, where vitamin A deficiency in children is widespread.

Beta-carotene is not an important nutrient per se. But, the human body converts it into vitamin A, which is very important for the health of the skin, immune system, cellular membranes, and the eyes.

According to the study published on March 4, the researchers used the CRISPR technology for genetic cutting, a more effective technique than the conventional plant genetic engineering that uses a particle gun to transfer genes encoding desired traits into the plant genome.

With the conventional genetic engineering, the transgenes can integrate into random positions in the genome, which can result in reduced yields, and prioritize health benefits over the economic interest. During the conventional technique, particles of a chemical element, especially of heavy metals such as gold particles, are coated with DNA molecules that carry the desired genes, and then thrown on the target cells.

In a report published by the University of California, Oliver Dong, a postdoctoral scholar in the UC Department of Plant Pathology and Genome Center, says "Instead, we used CRISPR to precisely target those genes onto genomic safe harbors, or chromosomal regions that we know won't cause any adverse effects on the host organism." CRISPR is a genetic engineering technique that allows the modification of the DNA in an organism, as well as monitoring genetic abnormalities and replacing other DNA elements. This technique relies on Cas9, a guiding molecule found in the RNA that targets the required part of the DNA.

"The research team used CRISPR to move the beta-carotene genes from a bacterium into the rice genome. This opens up the possibility that genes controlling multiple desirable traits, such as having high levels of beta-carotene as well as being disease-resistant or drought-tolerant, can be clustered at a single position within the genome," explained Dong.

Such product may have a better nutritional value than the products found in the markets today, but genetically engineered food is not yet allowed in Arab countries due to several concerns.

Dr. Hala Issa, researcher at the Agricultural Genetic Engineering Research Institute, Egypt, told Asharq Al-Awsat: "Most countries need to adopt a legislative framework that controls and regulates the production of these genetically engineered crops, because the safety concerns still overweigh the benefits they can achieve in food security."

"US researchers have produced rice high in beta-carotene, and we have a lot of pending research that still await a law to start production," she added.

One of the research projects that Dr. Hala referred to is the development of strains of insect-resistant wheat. Stored crops are often affected by insects, and such strain may help address a major problem that faces wheat producers and exporters.

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