ngin - Norfolk Genetic Information Network

26 June 2002


Dear GENET-news subscribers,

below another example of non-GE approaches to tackle malnutrition. Interestingly, this news was  publicised by ICRISAT already in April 2002 but ignored by the major pro-GE mailing list. They only reported about ICRISAT's GE activities (eg development of GE peanuts).

NOTE ICRISAT stands for International Crops Research Institute for the Semi Arid Tropics

Hartmut Meyer


Natural 'golden millet' rivals 'golden rice'

[Hyderabad] Scientists in India have used conventional breeding techniques to develop a new variety of pearl millet containing high levels of beta-carotene, a nutrient that is vital for healthy vision.

The team of scientists at the International Crops Research Institute for the Semi Arid Tropics (ICRISAT) has called their discovery 'golden millet'.

This is both a reference to its yellow grains, and an apparent allusion to the 'golden rice' that has been genetically modified to produce beta-carotene.

"Golden millet that has beta-carotene is a product of natural genetic variation; no genetic engineering is involved," says Tom Hash, principal breeder at ICRISAT. He points out that although it may not be eaten as widely as rice, pearl millet forms the staple diet for millions of poor people in Africa and India.

Beta-carotene (also known as provitamin A) is a precursor of vitamin A, a lack of which is a major cause of blindness in developing countries. 'Golden rice' has been hailed by some as a miracle crop to tackle vitamin A deficiency. But others have criticised the involvement of multinational biotechnology companies in its development.

"To have a staple food with a naturally high content of beta-carotene would be the easiest way to alleviate vitamin A deficiency," says Juergen Erhardt, a researcher at the University of Hohenheim in Germany, who collaborated on the ICRISAT project.

Hash and his co-workers say they stumbled across 'golden millet' during routine viability testing of the seed collections in ICRISAT's germplasm bank. Two samples from Burkina Faso in West Africa were found to produce yellow-coloured grains that contained unusually high amounts of beta-carotene.

Starting with a handful of these yellow grains, the ICRISAT scientists have developed a line of pearl millet high in beta-carotene using conventional breeding techniques. Hash says that by using genetic marker techniques he could probably create golden millet of even higher beta-carotene content.

The ICRISAT team is now planning to transfer the beta-carotene trait into other pearl millet crops, especially hybrid crops, which grow in different parts of the world. But with recent budget cuts (see 'Funding cuts hit Indian agricultural centre', 22 February 2002), external funding will have to be sought.

"The golden millet is an exciting new alternative [to golden rice] that deserves further development," says William Dar, director-general of ICRISAT. "But one should keep in mind that it would reduce - but not eliminate - the need for other sources of provitamin A."


Golden Millet, Naturally!

An exciting finding has revealed that some of ICRISAT's pearl millet genotypes with yellow endosperm (left) appear to have beta-carotene levels comparable to those of "Golden Rice".

Beta-carotene, also known as provitamin A, is a substance found in food that we must take into our bodies to make vitamin A. There are several such substances, called precursors, but the best is beta-carotene, because our bodies can make two molecules of vitamin A (retinol) from
each molecule of beta-carotene.

"To have a staple food with a natural high content of beta-carotene would be the easiest way to alleviate vitamin A deficiency, which is one of the most important nutritional problems in developing countries," stated Juergen Erhardt, a researcher from the University of Hohenheim, who helped analyze the beta-carotene content of some of ICRISAT's millet genotypes.

Vitamin A deficiency causes hundreds of thousands of cases of irreversible blindness every year, especially among children in developing countries. There have been many studies examining the possibility of using foods naturally rich in vitamin A or provitamin A to combat vitamin A deficiency in developing countries.

The results of Dr Erhardt's analysis are quite close to what ICRISAT scientists had earlier found using different extraction methods. Although excited about the finding, Dr CT Hash, ICRISAT Millet Breeder, said, "Dr Erhardt and I feel that some more time is needed to optimize the extraction procedure and analyze the isomers to more accurately calculate the potential intake of retinolequivalents from pearl millet grain."

Dr Hash also added that millet grains containing a substantial amount of pro-vitamin A would be acceptable to farmers "if this higher nutritional value can be delivered in locally-adapted, pest- and disease-resistant cultivars that have reasonable yield potential."

The "golden millet" is thus an exciting new alternative that deserves further development, keeping in mind that it would reduce but not eliminate the need for vegetables and other sources of pro-vitamin A.

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