This genetically modified rice could transform the global food supply

Copying one key gene could help feed hundreds of millions of people worldwide facing nutritional deficiencies.

aerial view of rice fields in rural Nan province
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Genetically modified foods are a hot-button issue. Many people are hesitant to eat plants or animals that have been enhanced with foreign genes, citing health and environmental concerns, the perceived “ick” factor, and occasionally conspiratorial thinking.

But GMO foods have the potential to feed the hundreds of millions of people worldwide who are undernourished. Given the benefits of tinkering with our meals’ genomes, a new study published in Science could offer a helpful compromise: a way to improve the yields of a crucial crop without adding genes from different organisms.

“Rice is one of the most important crops because it is a staple food for almost half of the world’s population,” Wenbin Zhou, a geneticist at the National Key Research and Development Program of China and co-author of the study, tells Inverse.

By duplicating one key gene, a team of researchers in China has successfully engineered a strain of agricultural rice that yields up to 40 percent more grain per plot compared to controls. If widely adopted, this breakthrough technique has the potential to feed magnitudes more people with fewer resources — but only if consumers and regulatory bodies are willing to give the transgenic dish a chance.

Here’s the Background — Unfortunately, our beloved rice is a particularly resource-intensive crop. It requires lots of land and water to grow, and rice yields could decline about 40 percent by 2100 due to intensifying climate change. That’s why it’s quickly becoming necessary to increase yields of rice, along with other staple crops that are at risk.

Despite its growing utility, chowing down on genetically modified rice doesn’t appeal to everyone. In fact, it has sparked heated debate for decades. For example, you may have heard of golden rice, one of the first commercial GMO crops. It was developed in the 1990s to help supplement vitamin A intake in areas of the world where dietary sources of the nutrient are rare. The scientists behind golden rice inserted a gene found in daffodils, along with a gene from a type of soil bacterium, into the genome of a common domestic rice variety.

Genetically modified crops produced by massive corporations like Monsanto have sparked protests around the world, like this May 2022 demonstration in La Paz, Bolivia.

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Many anti-GMO groups (and members of the general public) couldn’t stomach the idea of eating what they considered “Frankenfood.” Concerns ranged from the entirely reasonable, such as unforeseen environmental impacts and corporate sketchiness, to the outlandish, like government mind control.

The issue came to a boil in the mid-2010s when environmental group Greenpeace accused scientists conducting safety studies on the rice of using children as “guinea pigs.” In the wake of the scandal, the scientists involved were promptly fired by the Chinese government. Golden rice finally received FDA approval in 2018, but remains unapproved in many countries facing major food insecurity and vitamin A deficiency, including Bangladesh and India.

But breeding new types of rice isn’t very helpful, since it has only been shown to improve yield by about 1 percent each year. So in order to keep pace with climate change and global population growth, scientists like Zhou are turning to genetic engineering.

What’s New — To create their new strain of super-rice, Zhou’s team first examined a pool of 118 rice genes associated with growth in the plants. “We mainly focused on the genes that [are] induced by or respond to both nitrogen and light simultaneously,” Zhou says.

The researchers pinpointed 13 genes that activated when the plants were grown in nitrogen-depleted soil and five that were associated with increased nitrogen uptake. Then they inserted an extra copy of one of these key nitrogen-boosting genes, known as OsDREB1C, into the plant’s genome. Finally, they sprouted these rice plants alongside unmodified rice and rice with the OsDREB1C gene suppressed.

Unlike golden rice and other more traditional genetically modified crops, this new variety does not incorporate genes from other organisms.

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As it turned out, the plants with the additional copy of OsDREB1C produced grains that were both bigger in size and more abundant compared with their unmodified and knock-out counterparts. “We were surprised and excited about that,” says Zhou. What’s more, the rice plants had significantly more chloroplasts, allowing them to convert more sunlight into sugar during photosynthesis. However, when it comes to transgenic foods, it isn’t enough to simply engineer a heartier or healthier crop; you also have to convince people to eat it.

What’s Next — The authors of the new study hope that their transgenic rice won’t cause quite such a commotion. For one thing, unlike golden rice, “what we introduced is the original gene from the rice’s own genome,” says Zhou. Instead of borrowing a gene from another organism, the researchers simply sent one of the plant’s growth-promoting genes into overdrive by duplicating it — this happens all the time in nature.

Plus, the new rice was engineered from a rice variety that is already commonly grown outside the lab, bred with flavor and texture in mind. This recent research effectively acts as a proof-of-concept, demonstrating that the specific gene edit works outside of laboratory rice strains. And the scientists suspect that same modification could have similar yield-boosting effects in other staple crops, including wheat, which forms the basis of about a third of the world’s diet.

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