By Bob Steyer
Of the Post-Dispatch

Aug. 4, 1999

Edited by Virginia Baldwin Gilbert

Swiss and German researchers said Tuesday that they had added key nutrients to rice through genetic engineering, predicting they could ease a plague of diseases caused by malnutrition.

The research could prove to be the most dramatic use yet of biotechnology to improve human health through food.

If the discoveries can be applied broadly, they could reduce the dreaded impact of iron and vitamin A deficiencies that harm at least 1.8 billion people -- nearly one-third of the world's population.

These dietary problems include anemia and reduced mental ability. Deficient diets cause maternal deaths, accelerate infection risks and increase the chances for childhood blindness.

Rice is a dietary staple in many poor countries, where few residents can afford to supplement rice with foods that are rich in iron or vitamin A.

"Some people might ask, 'Why should we bother?' " said Ingo Potrykus, the Swiss scientist who led two research teams in creating the bioengineered rice.

"Can you imagine a peaceful world with 6 billion starving people looking at several hundred million overfed people?" said Potrykus, who has been working on these improved versions of rice for nearly 10 years.

Potrykus revealed the research results at the International Botanical Congress, a gathering of more than 4,000 scientists being held in St. Louis this week.

Rice experts said it would take three to five years before the new rice could be available to developing nations on a large scale.

The technology must be tested to make sure it doesn't hurt humans or the environment. It must be approved by regulatory bodies in different countries.

"I don't see any reasonable ecological concern," said Potrykus, professor of plant sciences at the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology in Zurich.

"Our hope is that this will be viewed as a clear demonstration of how this technology will benefit people," said Gary Toenniessen, deputy director for agricultural sciences at the Rockefeller Foundation, which helped finance Potrykus' work.

The foundation has spent more than $100 million on crop biotechnology research and educating scientists from developing nations during the past 15 years.

"This is a clear example of biotechnology helping consumers," said Toenniessen, whose foundation sponsors efforts to create rice that is insect-resistant, virus-resistant and drought-tolerant.

Most early crop biotechnology work, especially that done by corporations, has been aimed at helping farmers through improving herbicide tolerance and insect resistance.

Food experts say consumers won't give the technology their full support until they see a clear benefit for themselves. One benefit is improved nutrition.

Potrykus pointed out that he received no support from corporations - just the Swiss government and the Rockefeller Foundation.

"The rice will be free of charges and limitations," said Potrykus, who favors an "ideal world" where patents for potential life-saving discoveries wouldn't exist. "This material will be the property of the farmer."

Getting the new rice to Third World farmers is the job of the International Rice Research Institute, a nonprofit research organization based in the Philippines. It will distribute the rice for free, but it wants to make sure the technology is bred into top-of-the-line varieties before its begins distribution.

"We will wait until we get it into the elite varieties - otherwise we would lose the public's confidence," said Gurdev S. Khush, head of the institute's division of plant breeding, genetics and biochemistry.

Concerned about biotechnology opponents, Khush said his organization will conduct informative campaigns before distributing the rice to developing nations.

"There is a minuscule minority - a very vocal minority - who opposes biotechnology," Khush said. "We will inform the public about what we are doing. Five to 10 years from now, this could be routine. People will get used to it."

Potrykus also worries about what he calls "the extremist opposition" to crop biotechnology research. "They will always be against it," he said. "They will try to prevent testing and the public support (for the new rice)."

It takes a lot of work to turn old rice into new rice.

In a cruel joke of nature, rice plants produce compounds that can be converted into vitamin A - but they are found in green parts of the plant, not in the grain.

Rice can be fortified with extra vitamins. But this practice is impractical in reaching the many rural poor living in developing nations.

One of Potrykus' teams solved the problem by inserting into rice plants genes from a daffodil and a bacterium. The genes produced beta-carotene, which is converted into vitamin A.

The iron research team faced another hurdle. Phytic acid, a substance crucial to the germination of grains and many green vegetables, inhibits iron from being absorbed by the human digestive system.

The team attacked the problem in two ways. It inserted a gene from a t ype of bean that doubled the iron content in rice. And it inserted another gene that breaks down the phytic acid inhibitor without damaging the plant's ability to germinate.