Anemia is one of the most common manifestations of undernutrition in the world today. According to the World Health Organization, it affects almost two million people worldwide- a staggering 30 percent of the world’s population.
Anemia is the deficiency of red blood cells in the body, and may be caused by a number of reasons. The consequences of anemia can range from fatigue to cognitive and physical disabilities. In developing countries, anemia is one of the biggest contributors to maternal deaths.
The most common cause of anemia is iron deficiency. Iron as a trace metal is vital in the manufacture of hemoglobin for the body. In many areas however, the intake of iron is fairly limited due to patterns of diet in the particular region.
Bio-fortification is the method of changing the nutritional value of certain plant products, either to make the nutrients higher in content or to increase their bio-availability to the body. The process can either utilize breeding plant varieties naturally, which is a longer and less effective procedure, or genetic modifications can be used in the laboratory to yield faster, better results.
In recent years, the focus of bio-technologists has been to increase the iron content of crops such as rice, wheat and beans, which are a staple food in many parts of the world. People in resource-poor countries are especially reliant on cereal based diets, which typically contain very low iron quantities.
One of the most commonly used and promising techniques used for these purposes is genetic engineering. The objective of these approaches is to increase the uptake of minerals, such as iron, from the soil by the plant. This uptake is done either directly through the soil, or through chelating agents which bind to the mineral elements and facilitate their transport within the cellular structure of the plant.
To increase this uptake and transport of minerals from the soil to the plant, the chelating agent has to be genetically over-expressed. Various studies have tested out different ways to achieve this end, which include enhancing the promoter that transcribes the gene, as well as silencing certain genes by using RNA (ribonucleic acid) interference.
The plant organism resultant of these modifications has been shown to contain higher quantities of essential nutrients, with iron content in rice samples shown to be doubled or even tripled. The agricultural yield of the crops was also not affected due to the modifications.
The advantage of using genetic modification to biologically fortify crops is that it is both cost and time effective. The cost of propagating lines of genetically modified crops is less expensive than using nutritional supplements for undernourishment. Genetically modified crops also have a much higher potential for reaching remote populations.
Another advantage of this method is its diversity of application. This process can be applied to many different minerals. As of now, researchers are experimenting on increasing zinc and selenium amounts in crops as well. The genome of the plant can accommodate man different changes, so these modifications need not be mutually exclusive. The transgenic approach is also environmentally sustainable.
The challenges facing bio-fortified crops is that their effect is somewhat uncertain. Recent studies done on beans have shown that iron fortification without reducing the chemical that inhibits its uptake can lead to reduced absorption of the nutrient. Additionally, the genetically engineered approach needs to be so that the effects are not genotype-specific, but rather perpetually and uniformly expressed in the crop.
Despite these challenges, bio-fortified crops offer a creative, sustainable and far-reaching solution to undernourishment.
– Atifah Safi