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Can genetics give a solution to those who suffer from hunger and malnutrition?

By Spiros Tzelepis

The researchers at the Biochemistry-Genetics lab of the University of Newcastle, England share their experiences.

Some months ago I was struck by a piece of news about a new gene-product of a research team in England- which may be the solution to problems of extreme hunger in many developing countries. So when the idea of an article on technology in our life occurred to me, I thought to contact Nigel Robinson, Professor of Molecular Genetics in Medical School of the University of Newcastle in England, the person who discovered this gene, and ask him some information about his discovery. A few days later I received all the material I wanted from one of his colleagues, Mrs. Catherine Procter.

1. How did this idea occur and how many years were you working on it?

The lab has been working on this project for over 5 years. I have just finished my third year of work on this. Although iron is the fourth most abundant element in the soil, over one third of the world's soil is iron deficient. Iron in the soil is mainly present as insoluble compounds with only a very small amount present in the soil solution which is bound to organic compounds. Iron deficiency can lead to a reduction in crop yield and in the yellowing of plant leaves (chlorosis). Plants obviously need to obtain this small fraction of soluble iron from the soil. One type of strategy that plants use is to release the iron from the compounds it is bound to. The plants pass an electron to the iron, Fe(III) in the compound which releases free iron, Fe(II). This Fe(II) can then be taken up by the plant root system. The enzyme responsible for this is the ferric chelate reductase. This is a critical enzyme, the activity of which limits iron uptake into the plant. We believed that the characterisation of the ferric chelate reductase would help to improve our understanding of how plants take up and distribute iron throughout the plant.

2. Could you describe to us what exactly you have found?

We have identified a gene that is responsible for the ferric chelate reductase activity of the plant, Arabidopsis thaliana. Plants that do not have this gene, cannot take up, or distribute iron (Fe(III)) to the leaves. They show very poor growth when grown under iron deficiency, but when you add an excess of iron to the media they grow healthily. We have identified a family of these FRO genes, that seem to act in different organs of the plant, e.g. leaves, roots, flowers and respond to deficiencies of different metals, e.g. copper and iron.

3.Was this discovery the result of scientific interest only or the result of caring for the populations who suffer because of poverty and hunger in the less privileged areas of the planet?

Iron deficiency is the world's most common nutritional disorder and in the USA, Japan and Europe, between 10 and 20% of women of child-bearing age suffer from the severe form of the disorder, anaemia. During pregnancy, anaemia is especially a problem and can cause problems for both the mother and the new-born child. Plants form a large proportion of our diets, especially in developing countries, and as plants too suffer greatly from iron deficiency, consequently the uptake of iron from our diet is reduced. The results we achieved were based on scientific interest, but it was driven by the knowledge that if we achieved our goal it could lead to a greater understanding of such an important problem.

4. Did the discovery justify the effort you put in it? Was it what you expected it would be?

The discovery more than justified the effort that was put in by our research group. There was quite a lot of publicity surrounding the results which meant that people actually recognised the importance of the work that we do. The discovery came around the time that in Britain there was a lot of controversy about genetically modified foods. Although our result did not involve the production of gm crops, it highlighted the fact that knowledge could actually be used to the advantage of the public.

5. Do you believe that it can be put into action in the near future and will it be cheap enough to be used widely? How long will it take so that it reaches the maximum level of production it can offer?

Simply increasing the amount of iron into a plant, by increasing FRO2 expression, may not be particularly advantageous unless the iron is targeted to an appropriate part of the plant; i.e., the seeds of rice, that are edible. In the future it may be possible to increase not only uptake but also storage and distribution of iron within the plant. I believe that there is still a lot more research to be done. However, we have sent FRO2 to several people throughout the world who are producing plants, such as rice that express increasing amounts of the FRO2 gene. This should lead to the production of plants with a higher iron content than those without. The production of these plants could be very useful for developing crops for either growth on iron deficient soils, or for alleviating the problems of iron deficiency in third world countries. As with all biotechnology approaches this 'must' be critically assessed and all aspects of any repercussions of it considered before production commences. This is a very long-term project and consequently could take a long time to reach a level of production that would make a difference.

6. Do you believe that biotechnology can change (even a little) the situation in third world countries?

I believe that if undertaken correctly, and all aspects of the work critically assessed, then biotechnology can change the situation in third-world countries.

7. How do you feel in front of the challenge to interfere and change nature? What is it like realizing that your science gives you this power?

As far as I am concerned science is not about interfering and changing nature, it is simply about learning more about how and why nature works. I don't think this gives us any more power, but it gives us an advantage that can be used to the benefit of science and to increase our understanding further. Biotechnology is a very powerful tool that can be used to enormous benefit of others, and the identification of the FRO2 gene is a prime example.

8. What would you say to those who every day blame biotechnology?

Many people do not understand the concept of biotechnology, and I think if people took the time to learn and understand then the benefits of this type of technology would become clearer. However, I must stress that every little detail of 'any' biotechnology 'must' be assessed before being brought into the public domain.

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