Carotenoid Project: Improving the Diet of the
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.
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?
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.
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.
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 ‘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
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.
Dr. Giovanni Giuliano
PO Box 2400
Tel: +39 6 3048 3192