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 The Carotenoid Project: Improving the Diet of the Poor

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The “Golden rice” variety genetically modified to produce the vitamin A precursor beta-carotene may be the key to reducing vitamin A deficiency and subsequent child mortality in many poor countries. It was developed within the FP4 project ‘Carotene plus’ (FAIR), as part of a broader endeavour to create staple foods synthesising carotenoids for health purposes (e.g. prostate cancer prevention). Now, as a follow-up, the FP5 ‘Provita’ project (Quality of Life) is focusing on introducing beta-carotene into crops grown in northern countries: such as potato and into turning the tomato fruit into a ‘cell factory’ for antioxidant carotenoids, which are presently available only through chemical synthesis.

A health problem
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Beta-carotene is one of the most important nutrients in food for humans. It not only gives the characteristic orange colour to carrots, but is also a precursor of vitamin A. Vitamin A deficiency is a public health problem in 118 countries where over 200 million preschool children are suffering from it, according to the WHO. Adding vitamin A to the diet could reduce child mortality by 23% in these countries while helping to prevent blindness malaria and general infection diseases. But disseminating vitamin pills would be costly and non-sustainable, and planting vitamin A-rich fruits or vegetables is not always feasible. So how can the children’s diet be improved?

Towards a solution
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The most efficient way to find a solution, probably, is to alter the daily diet of many children in poor countries. If carotenes could be expressed in a staple food, such as rice, which is eaten by 2 billion people, it would have an enormous impact on health improvement. Therefore, a research project was initiated to identify and transfer suitable genes into the number one staple food, rice.

A European initiative
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The EU funded the research project ‘Carotene plus’ under the Fourth Framework Programme (FAIR-CT96-1633; €1.8 million), which resulted in the creation of the so-called “golden rice” (1). The change in colour was due to the introduction of three additional genes – two from the daffodil and one from a bacterium – which engineered the production of beta-carotene. Having achieved the first results, the project must, of course, be developed further by creating rice varieties adapted to local conditions and establishing stable nutritional and environmental properties. This work is now under way in an international network secured by a chain of non-commercial licenses involving national and international research institutes in developing countries. In the same project, tomatoes with improved beta-carotene and lycopene content were also created.

Going further
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Countries closer to the EU are concerned too: seasonal carotenoid deficiency is a nutritional problem in countries of North-Eastern Europe, where vegetables are not widely consumed, and in Turkey, where up to 30% of children are subclinically vitamin A deficient. Carotenoids have also antioxidant properties and may prevent age-related diseases, such as prostate cancer, or eye macular degeneration, leading to blindness. Unfortunately, the chemical synthesis of carotenoids is expensive ($1 000-25 000 per kg, depending on the kind of carotenoid). Hence, there is an incentive to produce them in crops adapted to Northern conditions.

The new approach
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The ‘Provita’ project, financed under the Fifth Framework Programme (QLK3-CT2000-00809), is targeting carotenoid production in the tomato and potato. Three working steps are proposed: identifying still unknown genes for further carotenoids; introducing suitable genes into tomato and potato plants; and evaluating the nutritional properties of the modified crops by using animal and in vitro models, as well as their agronomic performance.

Outlook
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The long-term goal will be to engineer and produce on a large scale a whole range of carotenoids for health purposes in crop plants adapted to various climatic and geographic regions: the beginning of the “pharming” era.

(1) Funding from the Swiss Federal Research Institute and the Rockefeller Foundation should also be acknowledged.

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CO-ORDINATOR
Dr. Giovanni Giuliano
ENEA-CR Casaccia
PO Box 2400
IT-00100AD Roma
Tel: +39 6 3048 3192
E-mail: giulianog@casaccia.enea.it

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