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Rice serves as a dietary cornerstone in numerous regions like Asia, South America, and Africa, sustaining half the globe’s population. Yet, it lacks essential thiamine (vitamin B1), exacerbated by refining. Researchers from the University of Geneva, ETH Zurich, and Taiwan’s NCHU have innovated methods to enrich rice with vitamin B1 while maintaining yield.

Biofortification of rice to augment vitamin B1 levels within endosperm

The majority of essential vitamins must be obtained through dietary intake. Maintaining a diverse and well-balanced diet typically ensures sufficient nutrient intake. However, populations heavily dependent on rice as a staple food are more prone to deficiencies, particularly in thiamine. Insufficient intake of vitamin B1, known as beriberi, may lead to neurological and cardiovascular issues.

According to lead study author Teresa Fitzpatrick, prior endeavors in biofortification, undertaken by different research groups, had achieved success in augmenting the vitamin B1 levels within the leaves and bran, which constitutes the outer layer of rice grains. However, these efforts fell short in elevating the vitamin B1 content in the fully processed rice grain ready for consumption. Fitzpatrick explains that their targeted initiative focuses on enhancing vitamin B1 content specifically within the endosperm.

Fortified rice varieties have higher vitamin B1 levels

Scientists engineered rice varieties with a gene directing vitamin B1 accumulation in the endosperm, the edible part. Following glasshouse cultivation, harvesting, and grain refinement, elevated vitamin B1 levels were observed. Subsequently, these lines underwent field trials in Taiwan, exhibiting comparable growth traits with significantly enhanced vitamin B1 content, three to fourfold higher than unmodified counterparts.

Professor Wilhelm Gruissem from ETH Zurich and NCHU noted the stability of gene expression over time without compromising agronomic traits, indicating promising results.

Approximately 1.25 cups of this rice yields nearly one-third of the recommended daily thiamine intake for adults. Future plans include applying this technology to commercial rice varieties, pending regulatory procedures for biofortification via genetic engineering before cultivation.

It is important to note that increasing thiamine levels in rice may not be necessary in Western countries with lower rice consumption, but could be beneficial in regions where rice is a dietary staple.