Thai Innovation A Thai Breakthrough

in combating iron deficiencies 









A joint project by Biotec (The National Centre for Genetic Engineering and Biotechnology) and Kasetsart University has resulted in a new rice variety, scientifically termed cultivar. It promises to greatly contribute to national and international efforts to curb the high rate of iron-deficiency worldwide, particularly in developing nations. Iron deficiency is the most prevalent nutritional disorder worldwide. The latest figures from the World Health Organization (WHO) report that globally over 2 billion people are anaemic and 3.6 billion are iron deficient. Over a third of these cases come from South Asia. 


Iron deficiencies and anaemia cause many serious health consequences. A reduction in iron diminishes the ability of the blood to carry oxygen from the lungs to the brain, muscles and other organs. The result of this varies according to the severity of the deficiency and the age of the sufferer. Anaemia amongst adults reduces physical and mental output and impairs immune function. The most serious effects of Anaemia occur in infants and children whose intellectual and physical development can be permanently impaired. Anaemia during pregnancy also increases the risk of maternal mortality. It is estimated that 20% of maternal deaths globally are directly attributed to the effects of anaemia. Maternal anaemia almost always leads to infant anaemia which in its severest form can cause stillbirth, infant death and brain damage. 


The profound direct and indirect impact iron deficiencies have on a population’s well-being and overall productivity has prompted a number of projects to combat the problem. In developing countries like Thailand the primary cause of micronutrient deficiency is malnutrition. There are many indirect solutions to tackling malnutrition; the most obvious is reducing poverty and increasing education. This of course is the ultimate long-term, broad based goal of most developing nations, which requires a lot of time and involves an endless number of contributing factors. Therefore, it is more direct solutions arising from developments in biotechnology that are providing more immediate answers to micronutrient deficiencies like iron anaemia. 


Recently, there has been a new research impetus toward improving the nutritional status of populations through improvements in staple crops. Rice is the predominant staple food for at least 33 developing countries, and has therefore been the centre of much biotechnological research. Any nutritional enhancement to rice will benefit people globally, but developing countries will have the most to gain. "Iron rich rice benefits populations where rice is the main staple food. In Thailand alone, 25 million people reportedly developed iron deficiencies. Biofortification is proved to be the most cost- effective method to cure the problem," said Dr.Apichart Vanavichit, Director of the Rice Gene Discovery Unit at Biotec. 


When judging the iron content of any food, one has to consider not only the content of iron but the iron's bioavailability. “Bioavailability” refers to the readiness of minerals or micronutrients when contained in a particular food to be digested and absorbed. Certain foods have a high iron content but a low iron bioavailability. "When one considers the iron content and the bioavailability of the new rice cultivar, it is 30% iron-richer than the polished commercially available rice," stated Dr.Apichart. 


The new variety, unofficially called Jao Hom Nin number 3 (JHN#3) is the result of cross breeding Khao Dok Mali Jasmine rice and Jao Hom Nin (JHN) rice, "To add new traits to improve a rice variety', the pollen sac is removed and replaced with a desirable sac," said Dr.Apichart, The result is a variety that has the beneficial qualities of each original type, Dr. Apichart explained: "JHN grains have a high iron and protein content, while those qualities in the polished commercial jasmine rice were 40% lower. However, the jasmine rice has almost zero tannin and considerably low phvtate, the two ant nutrient factors found in cereal grains that make minerals unavailable to the human digestive system. So the progenies from jasmine rice and JHN are expected to combine both beneficial factors and become more nutritious. JHN#3 is classified as a purple rice and one of the best cross-bred varieties in this category. In the near future, consumers can look forward to new selections of regular white rice with higher iron content and more protein generated from the same jasmine rice and JHN." 


In addition to increasing the nutritional content of JHN#3, the original Jasmine and JHN passed on other beneficial properties, "The cooking qualities of both cultivars are soft, tender and aromatic. With its deep purple grains, JHN#3 is a rich source of natural antioxidants that help prevent several non- infectious diseases. For milling  properties, both cultivars have low percentage of broken grains. Also the original JHN is highly resistant to leaf and neck blast, major causes of yield lost in jasmine rice. Both jasmine and JHN are moderately tolerant to drought, salt and acidic soil/' stated Dr.Apichart, 


Dr. Apichart is pleased with the response shown from company’s interested in making the new rice variety commercially available. "We have had many local and foreign companies interested in forming partnerships with us/' remarked Dr. Apichart. The new rice variety is however not currently patented. Dr.Apichart said that he intends to file for a new rice variety as soon as this option becomes available through the Thai New Plant Variety Protection Law. 


Aside from the delays posed by legal registration, Dr.Apichart is confident that the project is on track and the new rice variety should be available to the public by the end of this year. "We are now at the final stages of seed propagation. If we get support from the government, the grain will be available to the public in December this year/' he said. "More tests need to be done to test the efficacy of the Biofortification/' According to Dr. Apichart the JHN#3 variety was tested on people with normal and low iron levels since an over concentration of iron can have adverse consequences. That high level of bioavailability in the new rice brings no harm to consumers with no iron deficiency, the new variety is suitable for everybody." 


Dr. Apichart is enthusiastic about the possibilities inherent in applying the new rice variety to modified food products. This will potentially increase the market and diversity of people receiving the benefits of JHN#3. "We would like to form cooperation’s with food industries looking for modified foods from this new rice cultivar because this could be a more effective way to reach the new generation consumers. We are now trying to make pop-rice for cereals and snacks. These food products appeal to the younger generation, teenagers, who are prone to iron deficiencies. We are also trying to produce rice flour that can be used in brownies and cakes, which are very popular in America and Europe." In this way iron-rich rice will not only benefit developing nations and the poor, but also more affluent consumers and developed nations where the staple diet is not rice. 


Interestingly, Dr. Apichart explained that although JHN#3 results from crossing two parental rice varieties, it would be incorrect to describe JHN#3 as a rice hybrid. "Rice is essentially a self-pollinated crop because, when mature, pollens are shed on the single female receptacle in the same flower. Seeds produced from a single rice plant are clones of their mother plant. The seeds have identical genetic information as the parents and are therefore called a pure bred. A hybrid means the cultivar that farmers use for cultivation are produced from two genetically uniform, distinct parents/' It may therefore be accurate to describe the very first generation of JHN#3 as hybrids, but with several generations of self-pollination, JHN#3 can only be described as a pure bred. 


It is important to recognize that one food type, no matter how modified, cannot provide all necessary nutrients for maintained health. Consumption of a diversity of foods is the only way to ensure optimal nutrition. Nevertheless, breakthroughs in biotechnology, like the advent of JHN#3, will play an increasingly important role in curbing the serious numbers of people suffering from nutritional deficiencies. Any improvements made through biotechnology must also be accompanied by actions to alleviate the central causes of malnutrition, namely improvements in healthcare, hygiene and education. The effective-ness of biotechnological breakthroughs will be limited if these core causes of malnutrition are not addressed. 







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