Ghent University is successful in improving rice


Researchers at the Laboratory for Functional Plant Biology at Ghent University have managed to develop rice with a stable folate content, otherwise known as vitamin B9 or folic acid. Folic acid deficiencies are a common health problem in developing countries. Developing rice varieties with a stable B9 content is an important step forward, certainly when you consider that around half the world's population lives on rice. Furthermore, scientists believe that the technique can be applied to other crops.

Vitamin B9 or folic acid cannot be made by the body itself. Large quantities can be found in green vegetables and pulses. Many other crops, including rice and cereals, contain very little vitamin B9. A folic acid deficiency can have a serious impact on health. Besides causing certain types of anaemia, folic acid deficiencies among pregnant women can also cause babies to be born with spina bifida (a so-called split spine). Other possible consequences for health are a higher risk of contracting Alzheimer's disease, cardiovascular complaints and the development of certain forms of cancer.

Just like other vitamins, folic acid has the disadvantage that it is broken down when coming into contact with oxygen, light, moisture, increased temperatures and changes in pH levels. That's why it's so important to eat food such as fruit and vegetables as fresh as possible. The vitamin content not only declines when you chop them, but also during storage. This can certainly be a problem in developing countries, where food is often stored at higher temperatures and humidity levels.

A team of researchers from UGent already developed a first generation rice in 2007, with B9 levels of up to 100 times higher. However, it was also identified that these vitamin B9 levels had already declined by about half after storing for six months. To resolve this it was important to develop a new rice prototype in which the B9 content remained stable, even if stored for a long time.

Researchers applied 2 strategies to stabilise the high levels of folate. One strategy was to encapsulate the folates with a folate-binding protein. The other strategy was to lengthen the tail of the folate molecule, encouraging binding with folate-dependent proteins. The study demonstrates that this procedure not only creates a stable level of folic acid, but also that the new combinations of genes increase folate levels to more than 150 times the levels in normal rice.

“By placing all modified genes next to each other, it is possible to transfer the piece of altered genetic material relatively easily to popular rice varieties”, state the researchers. They are also promoting the strategy used in this pioneering work for use in other crops, including both cereal crops such as wheat and sorghum, and non-cereals, such as potatoes or bananas.