Providing nutrition to the world’s poorest

By the Faculty of Science

By modifying rice to enrich its nutritional value for people growing it in developing countries, a University of Melbourne researcher is helping prevent iron-deficiency anaemia and maternal mortality.

The technology

Iron and zinc deficiencies are widespread in the developing world and cause serious human disorders, such as child stunting, increased maternal mortality and iron-deficiency anaemia. In some communities, up to 80 percent of the diet comes from rice, which is a poor source of these vital nutrients.

A team led by Dr Alex Johnson, School of BioSciences in the Faculty of Science, has developed iron- and zinc-enriched varieties of rice. After successful field trials in Colombia and the Philippines, the team is planning for large-scale deployment of this rice in Bangladesh and other rice consuming countries. The aim is to help as many people as possible and, with the financial and practical support of international NGOs, the enriched rice will be distributed to farmers in developing countries at no additional cost to traditional rice varieties.

Dr Johnson identified genes that are largely responsible for iron and zinc uptake in rice. By replacing the ‘on-off’ switches for these genes with ‘always on’ versions, Dr Johnson was able to greatly increase the activity of these genes. The rice strain his team developed has approximately four-fold more iron and two-fold more zinc in grain tissues compared to traditional rice.

The partnership

Dr Johnson’s rice research has been largely supported by HarvestPlus, an international not-for-profit organisation that aims to ‘end hidden hunger caused by the lack of essential vitamins and minerals in the diet, such as vitamin A, zinc, and iron’.

In 2013, Dr Johnson leveraged the support of HarvestPlus to win a $429,000 ARC Linkage Grant. The other industry partners on this grant are the Australian Centre for Plant Functional Genomics and World Vision Australia.

Dr Joe Tohme, the Nutritional Genomics Manager for HarvestPlus, has said: ‘Our collaboration with the University of Melbourne is resulting in internationally significant developments that will help to reduce human malnutrition in developing countries and, furthermore, highlights biotechnology as an essential tool in the global effort to develop biofortified crops.’  

The outcome

The iron- and zinc-enriched rice varieties were originally developed by Dr Alex Johnson through research activities at the University of Melbourne and the Australian Centre for Plant Functional Genomics.

Field trials of the rice varieties are currently being conducted with HarvestPlus partners at the International Centre for Tropical Agriculture (CIAT) in Colombia and the International Rice Research Institute (IRRI) in the Philippines. World Vision Australia recognises the strong humanitarian need for iron- and zinc-enriched rice and is working with the team to identify and develop markets in developing countries.