Embryo Project. The Embryo Project focuses on anything related to embryos and embryo research, including the history of evolution, birth control, and stem cells. But since I don't really work on that stuff, they're letting me write about plants! My first article is on the history of Golden Rice, which I'll share a bit about here. My next three articles are on the history of seed banks and the movement for conservation of plant genetic resources. I'm including things like the history of plant patents and the biodiversity movement, which is part of why it's taking 3 articles.
So what is Golden Rice? Golden Rice is a technology that comes at the intersection of scientific and ethical debates that extend beyond a grain of rice. Golden Rice was the first crop variety engineered for micronutrient fortification with the intention of improving human health. Golden Rice has an engineered multi-gene biochemical pathway in its genome. This pathway produces beta-carotene, a molecule that becomes vitamin A when metabolized by humans. The inventors of Golden Rice were Ingo Potrykus of the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology and Peter Beyer of the University of Freiburg, Germany. The Rockefeller Foundation supported their collaboration. Scientists first succeeded in expressing beta-carotene in rice in 1999, and the results were published in 2000. Since then, Golden Rice has improved through laboratory and field trials, but as of 2012 is not commercially grown.
Golden Rice is named for its color, which is caused by beta-carotene. Normal rice, Oryza sativa, does not express beta-carotene in its endosperm—the starchy, biggest part of the rice seed, which is usually an off-white color. Beta-carotene is part of a class of molecules called carotenoids, one of hundreds that are naturally produced in plants, and it has a yellow-orange hue. Carotenoids are an essential human nutrient because they are precursors to molecules needed in metabolism. Beta-carotene (also known as pro-vitamin A) is transformed in the human body into vitamin A, necessary for production of retinal and retinoic acid. When populations lack access to foods containing beta-carotene—by eating mostly cereal crops such as rice, wheat, or sorghum—they are at risk of blindness and disease.
Rather than planning to commercialize their invention, the inventors, especially Potrykus, worked to legally secure Golden Rice as a humanitarian project. They licensed Golden Rice to Syngenta (formerly Zeneca), a Swiss biopharmaceutical company. Potrykus and Beyer soon established a “Golden Rice Humanitarian Board” to oversee the development of the technology and grant noncommercial licenses to public research institutes. These national and international research organizations would adapt Golden Rice to local environmental and climate conditions. The International Rice Research Institute gained a license for use from the Golden Rice project in 2001, aiming to spread Golden Rice throughout Asia.
Both inventors credit Syngenta’s Adrian Dubock with helping them navigate the complex intellectual property legal system around agricultural biotechnology. Neither Potrykus nor Beyer anticipated the Intellectual and Technology Property Rights and material transfer agreements required for production of Golden Rice. These licenses protect inventors’ rights to genetic material, scientific techniques, and exchange of seeds for research. A legal assessment of Golden Rice in 2000 showed that it contained over seventy patents, but patents vary country to country. Many of the patents do not apply to the developing countries at which Golden Rice was targeted. For the licenses that were required, these were obtained over a few months at minimal cost.
Critics of Golden Rice include the environmental group Greenpeace. Greenpeace has staged public protests against Golden Rice, and is systematically opposed to all genetically modified organisms. Greenpeace claimed that the amount of beta-carotene in Golden Rice is so small, that one would need to consume massive quantities of rice to reach an effective dose. While it can be difficult to measure the ingestion of vitamins, a team of scientists from Syngenta introduced “Golden Rice 2” in 2005, which produced increased levels of beta-carotene by substituting the original daffodil genes with similar genes from corn.
As of early 2012, Golden Rice was still in field trials. The International Rice Research Institute (IRRI), partnered with Hellen Keller International, plans to introduce Golden Rice in Bangladesh and the Philippines by crossing it with local, high-yielding rice varieties. While IRRI has been involved in the Golden Rice project since nearly its invention, Hellen Keller International joined the project to support the public health benefits of vitamin A. The Golden Rice project at IRRI is supported by Rockefeller Foundation, the United States Agency for International Development, and the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation became a supporter of the Golden Rice project in 2011. Bangladesh approved field trials of Golden Rice, and as of 2012 estimates that varieties will be available for consumption by 2015.