Golden Rice: A product of precise plant breeding for a noble purpose
STAR SCIENCE - Ben O. de Lumen, Ph.D. (The Philippine Star) - September 19, 2013 - 12:00am

Throughout world history, humans have succeeded in improving plants and animals as food sources. Plant breeders have incorporated desirable characteristics such as improved harvest yields, higher nutritional quality, more desirable color and flavor, and increased resistance to pests and diseases. These improved varieties are products of careful selection of parents and crossing them with one another to obtain the desirable offsprings. Technically speaking, plant breeding is simply transferring a large number of genes from parents to offsprings to obtain desirable properties. Humans have done this through centuries of our existence. However, plant breeding has one singular limitation — only the same or closely related species can be bred together. Impossible, of course, is to breed animals with plants. In addition, the resultant qualities are not always what were predicted because hundreds of genes are being moved around.

Then came our ability to cut and paste DNA which make up genes. This technology is called many names: recombinant DNA, molecular biology or genetic engineering when the desired objective is very specific. This results in the ability to select a single gene or specific genes (not a large number of genes) and transfer them across species and beyond. Thus, genes can be transferred from plants to animals, animals to plants, bacteria to plants, etc. Recombinant DNA technology is attributed to Paul Berg of Stanford and Hal Boyer of the University of California at San Francisco (UCSF). Recombinant DNA provided the tools to understand the functions of specific genes and led to what is now the field of molecular biology — which is revolutionizing the science of biology.        

Knowing the function of a specific gene, recombinant DNA provides the tool to transfer a specific gene to achieve a desired characteristic with precision and therefore a more predictable outcome — we may call it “precise plant breeding.” It is also known as “genetic engineering.”

The deficiency of vitamin A, a fat-soluble vitamin, is one of the major nutritional problems in the developing world. The deficiency is aggravated by the low levels of fats in the diets. Beta-carotene which is found in fruits and vegetables is the precursor of vitamin A — it is converted to vitamin A in our bodies. Vitamin A is needed to maintain a healthy immune system to fight disease and to support growth. In addition, beta-carotene is an anti-oxidant.  

More than 100 million children worldwide have some degree of vitamin A deficiency and so are vulnerable to infectious diseases. Children with even mild vitamin A deficiency develop respiratory infections and diarrhea at 2-3 times those with normal vitamin A status. Growth failure is common with children with vitamin A deficiency — given vitamin A supplements, they gain weight and grow

taller. Since the early 1980s, several large studies conducted in Indonesia, India, Nepal and Sudan have shown that supplementing children with vitamin A can reduce death rates significantly. This prompted the United Nations’ WHO-UNICEF to control vitamin A deficiency as a major goal in their quest to improve child survival throughout the developing world.

Measles is a devastating infectious disease, killing as many as two million children every year. Vitamin A deficiency often correlates with the severity of measles. Deaths are usually due to related infections such as pneumonia and severe diarrhea.

Rice is the staple food of more than half of the world’s population and is the single major source of calories in the world, especially the developing world. Unfortunately, it does not contain beta-carotene. Thus, rice was selected as a vehicle for delivering beta-carotene in the diets of the developing world as a strategy to address vitamin A deficiency. This was accomplished through recombinant DNA, molecular biology or genetic engineering or “precise plant breeding” — however one wants to call it. The result is Golden Rice — the yellow color of beta-carotene gives it a yellow golden color. It is the product of genetic engineering for a noble purpose.

Golden Rice can improve the health of hundreds of millions of children and save a few million children from death a year. It would be clear injustice to deny the children of the developing world, including Filipino kids, the benefits of Golden Rice.

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Ben O. de Lumen, Ph.D., is professor emeritus at the University of California, Berkeley, where he served for 33 years. He obtained his Ph.D. in Agricultural Chemistry-Biochemistry from UC Davis and has hosted a number of Ph.Ds and graduate students from various countries, including the Philippines. He is president, CEO and co-founder of Filgen Biosciences Inc., a biotech company founded to commercialize the technology of lunasin (from the Pilipino word “lunas” for cure), an anti-cancer peptide found in seeds of common crops. E-mail at

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