Indian-American scientist develops arsenic-resistant Bt rice

May 8th, 2008 - 2:42 pm ICT by admin  

A file-photo of University of Massachusetts

Washington, May 8 (IANS) The presence of arsenic in the soil in parts of eastern India and Bangladesh has adversely affected rice production, as also the health of people who eat the contaminated rice. Scientists now claim to have a solution to the problem: genetically engineered rice plants that resist intake of the toxin.

Already more than 300,000 people in West Bengal and Bangladesh have developed cancer by drinking contaminated water and eating contaminated rice, said Om Parkash of the University of Massachusetts, who has genetically engineered rice plants that block arsenic intake.

“By increasing the activity of certain genes, we can create strains of rice highly resistant to arsenic and other toxic metals,” said Parkash, a plant, soil and insect scientist.

“Rice plants modified in this way accumulate several-fold less arsenic in their above-ground tissues, and produce six to seven times more biomass, making the rice safer to eat and more productive.”

This could help alleviate the current worldwide rice shortage, added Prakash.

More than 80 percent of the world’s population depends on rice as a staple food.

Deep tube wells installed to provide drinking water in Bangladesh and other countries are supplying water with naturally occurring levels of arsenic that greatly exceed safe limits.

Groundwater is then being used to irrigate rice paddies, and this irrigation is causing a build-up of arsenic in topsoil that is toxic to the rice plants, reducing the amount of rice that can be produced in a given area.

Arsenic is also present in the rice straw used as animal fodder, causing arsenic to enter the food chain in dairy products and meat, and affecting the health of animals.

“The World Health Organisation has dubbed this one of the major environmental disasters in human history,” Prakash said.

Parkash is currently working with the UMass Amherst Office of Commercial Ventures and Intellectual Property and several interested companies to bring this technology to market.

“Basically, the companies will use our gene constructs in new or existing rice lines, producing hybrid rice that will go through the cultivation and seed production stage,” he said.

“Then the new strains of rice will be commercialised and brought to market.”

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