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Grand Challenges in Global Health Project

by the ProVitaMinRice Consortium
The project described in this section is one of 44 projects (selected among more than 1,500 proposals for funding) being funded through the »Grand Challenges in Global Health Initiative«. The initiative was launched by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation in 2003 to encourage scientists to find the solutions that will revolutionize prevention and treatment of disease in developing countries. The initiative seeks to put to good use the extraordinary advances made by science in recent decades. This goal will be achieved by bringing together the world’s best minds in science and technology to find solutions to the problems that stand in the way of important advances against disease.

Guided by an international board of scientists and with US$450 million in funding, the initiative focuses on achieving breakthroughs in a set of 14 Grand Challenges in Global Health distributed in the following areas :

  • Improving existing childhood vaccines so they are easier and less expensive to use in developing countries
  • Creating effective new vaccines
  • Controlling insects that transmit disease
  • Improving nutrition to promote health (corresponds to Grand Challenge #9)
  • Discovering ways to prevent drug resistance
  • Curing latent and chronic infections
  • Measuring disease and health status in developing countries accurately

Four projects are being funded within Grand Challenge #9. They all are concerned with improving the micronutrients content of important staple crops. You may obtain information on the three other projects by following the links below:

Our project addresses the problem of micronutrient malnutrition in rice and is a collaborative, international effort that includes seven working groups working together as the so-called ProVitaMinRice Consortium*.

Title of the Project :

»Engineering Rice for High Beta-Carotene, Vitamin E, Protein, Iron, and Enhanced Iron and Zinc Bioavailability«

Grand Challenge addressed : Create a full range of optimal, bioavailable nutrients in a plant

Lead Principal Investigator : Prof Peter Beyer, Albert-Ludwigs-University of Freiburg, Germany.

Membership and Governance of the ProVitaMinRice Consortium :

  • University of Freiburg, Germany, Peter Beyer;
  • Michigan State University, MI USA (Dean DellaPenna);
  • USDA-ARS and Baylor College of Medicine, Houston TX, USA (Mike Grusak);
  • Cuu Long Delta Rice Research Institute, Vietnam (CLRRI), Tran Thi Cuc Hoa;
  • PhilRice (Philippine Rice Research Institute), the Phillipines, Leocadio Sebastian;
  • International Rice Research Institute (IRRI), the Phillippines, Gerard Barry; and
  • the Chinese University of Hong Kong, Samuel Sun.

All programme decision authority and related responsibilities are delegated to a Steering Committee. Membership in the committee reflects the basic structure of the project. Thus the committee consists of the PI (chair and proof-of-concept work); Dr Jorge Mayer (Project Manager), Dr Gerard Barry (product-related GMO and breeding work); Dr Michael Grusak (Iron and Zinc Bioavailability); and Dr Adrian Dubock (Syngenta company representative).

The Golden Rice Humanitarian Board acts as an external advisory board to the Steering Committee and the project as such, providing valuable expertise essential for product delivery,

Project Description
Micronutrient malnutrition is a global problem of dietary origin caused by low concentrations or poor bioavailability of specific vitamins and minerals in staple food crops, such as rice. To reduce this problem among a large share of the world’s population, the consortium will modify rice such that it can deliver more dietary nutrients. The project combines existing genes, transgenic events of Golden Rice and available molecular and biochemical knowledge. Where necessary novel genes will be identified and isolated and the underlying knowledge generated. The overall goal is to engineer rice with increased levels of provitamin A, vitamin E, high-quality protein, and iron. Knowledge will be generated to allow enhanced bioavailability of iron and zinc. Human studies will be conducted to assess mineral bioavailability in the engineered lines. Selected rice lines containing these combined traits in a single genetic locus will be used as the breeding stock to transfer the improved traits into locally adapted varieties.

Rice is the primary food staple for over half of the world’s population, but it is also a very poor source of essential micronutrients and protein. Accordingly, human micronutrient deficiencies are prevalent in many rice-consuming regions, especially throughout the developing world where poverty exacerbates the problem of insufficient intake of animal products and other nutrient-dense foods. To reduce the global incidence of these nutritional disorders, a transgenic approach will be applied to improve the nutritional value of rice, with a specific focus on combining provitamin A and vitamin E in the rice grain and to increase the protein content to achieve a balanced composition of essential amino acids. Golden Rice will be combined with high iron lines. In addition, the knowledge necessary to enhance the bioavailability of iron and zinc in target crops will be generated. This will be achieved by identifying the corresponding QTLs in the model plant Arabidopsis. Golden Rice and other engineered rice lines with stacked traits will be incorporated into ongoing breeding and seed delivery programmes for developing countries. The products generated will be made freely available to low-income farmers to address these deficiencies inherent to rice-based diets on a global scale.

Specific objectives
(1) To stack multiple micronutrient/bioavailability traits into Golden Rice in one gene construct (a single genetic locus for breeding purposes);
(2) to identify the genetic and biochemical basis of mineral bioavailability in plant-based foods;
(3) to assess the bioavailability of iron in human subjects, using beta-carotene improved rice lines;
(4) to improve the protein content and quality, and
(5) to introgress novel traits from transgenic lines into regionally adapted rice cultivars through conventional breeding.

Research Goals
The expected outcomes include:
(1) rice lines with significantly improved nutritional characteristics will be available by the end of the project;
(2) essential scientific information on the genetic and biochemical basis of micronutrient bioavailability that will be relevant to all crop plants; and
(3) validation of the ability of improved rice lines to deliver bioavailable iron.

Meeting the Grand Challenge
The proposed research directly addresses the key issues of Grand Challenge #9 by developing lines of rice that contain in combination, elevated levels of provitamin A, vitamin E, iron and high-quality protein. The project will also deliver novel information on food matrix components that can be used to enhance mineral bioavailability to the benefit of developing countries where micronutrient deficiencies prevail. The research takes advantage of and integrates with ongoing efforts in rice (most notably with the international, multi-institutional biofortification programme of HarvestPlus) by using established beta-carotene containing lines of Golden Rice that are well advanced in the regulatory approval process. These lines are already being moved into international breeding programmes and are available to members of the Golden Rice Network. Golden Rice technology will serve as the platform for engineering all additional nutrition-enhancing traits in this project.

The involvement of national research institutions that are already members of the Golden Rice Network, such as the Cuu Long Delta Rice Research Institute (Vietnam) and PhilRice (Philippines), adds valuable capacity in rice breeding and genetic transformation of locally adapted varieties, and enables fast-tracking of local impact of the work. Apart from its hands-on contribution, collaboration with the International Rice Research Institute (Philippines), also a HarvestPlus and a Golden Rice Network member, is important because of its long-standing experience in interacting with national programmes and regulatory authorities. The interaction with Syngenta provides valuable help in legal matters, intellectual property management, obtention of regulatory approvals, and product-oriented expertise.

Distribution of tasks

  • The University of Freiburg and Michigan State University will be in charge of the multigene stacking and transformations.
  • Michigan State University and Baylor Colege will identity QTLs for iron bioavailability and assess bioavailability in model systems.
  • Baylor College will carry out the human iron bioavailability studies.
  • The Chinese University of Hong Kong will undertake work to enhance the protein quality/lysine content of rice.
  • IRRI (Philippines), CLRRI (Vietnam) and PhilRice (Philippines) will carry out introgression work into local rice varieties.

*ProVitaMinRice stands for rice enriched with high-quality Protein, Vitamins, and Minerals.

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For one quarter of humanity rice is the main source of energy and nutrition. Hence, a rice plant capable of providing most necessary micronutrients to consumers will provide for a healthy diet capable of preventing malnutrition-related diseases.
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