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Published On February 17, 2016


An Apple a Day

Adding or tweaking genes can improve the nutritional value of everyday foods.

Altering tobacco leaves to produce medicine is not the only way to enlist the plant kingdom in the cause for better health. Another path is more straightforward—boosting the nutritional content of current crops, especially in the developing world. “Scientists are using the same plant biotechnology that produces biological substances for clinical use to put extra nutrients in staples such as rice for developing countries,” says Jing Kang, who researches lipid medicine and technology at Massachusetts General Hospital. “We also have nutrition problems, such as unhealthy fats in oils and meats, that we could address with the same technology.”

Golden Rice is the poster child for that approach. This special grain is fortified with beta-carotene, the precursor to vitamin A. Rice doesn’t naturally produce vitamin A, and deficiencies in that nutrient may cause blindness, immune problems and other health issues in the millions of people whose primary daily sustenance is a bowl of rice.

International aid organizations currently address vitamin A deficiencies by distributing supplements, but that requires ongoing funding and is subject to political or social upheavals. “Pills don’t multiply, but seeds do,” says Peter Beyer, a cell biologist at the University of Freiburg in Germany. During the 1990s, he and Ingo Potrykus of the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology (ETH), in Zurich discovered that rice has most, but not all, of the genetic machinery needed to produce vitamin A. They found a way to add genes to complete the pathway—borrowing one of the missing beta-carotene genes from the daffodil and another from a bacterium.

Today, the International Rice Research Institute and its agencies in several countries have bred strains of Golden Rice that can grow in various climates using traditional farming methods. Because the rice is transgenic, farmers can collect its seeds for replanting the next year, indefinitely.

Those who are philosophically opposed to genetically modified organisms (GMOs) have tried to block the introduction of Golden Rice in the developing world. Others argue that what’s needed is to alleviate world poverty and balance the uneven global distribution of healthy foods. “When I was 14, I believed in that goal,” Beyer says. “Now my hair is gray.” The need to save lives, he says, is here, and so is the technology.

 The developed world, meanwhile, has its own food problems—an overabundance of unhealthy fats, for one—and rather than adding foreign genes to plants, researchers are attempting to address such issues with new gene-editing tools that can tweak or inactivate the genes that are already there, says Daniel Voytas, of the Center for Genome Engineering at the University of Minnesota. Soybean oil, for example, is high in polyunsaturated fats. That’s a problem in prepared foods, so soybean oil has typically been hydrogenated—a well-understood health risk. Voytas edited out the soybean gene that makes polyunsaturated fats, leaving monounsaturated fats, which are much healthier. He is also tweaking potatoes to produce fewer neurotoxins when they're fried. If people are what they eat, such advances may head off diet-related health problems before they begin.