University of Melbourne : Careers Guide 2012
» Fact Rice is one of the most widely consumed cereal grains in developing countries and provides up to 80% of total daily calories in areas such as South-East Asia. The polished grain Commonly called ‘white rice’, this contains very low concentrations of the essential micronutrients iron and zinc, and no vitamin A. >2 billion More than two billion people (30% of the world’s population), suffer from iron deficiency, with symptoms ranging from poor mental development in children to low immune function and anaemia. Unlike mineral supplements, which rely on health infrastructure for dispersal and can miss remote locations, biofortified crops represent a cheap, sustainable method for increasing intakes of iron and other important micronutrients. Laura Moreno, a postgraduate student working with Dr Johnson, assesses iron-fortified rice at the International Centre for Tropical Agriculture in Colombia. MAKE IT HAPPEN Master of Food Science, Master of Science Bachelor of Science or Bachelor of Biomedicine FIRST DEGREE GRADUATE STUDY OPTIONS FEEDING THE FUTURE Biofortification is an exciting new field in which breeding and biotechnology are used to increase the nutritional value of crops – and therefore the health of the world’s people. The World Health Organisation and the Food and Agriculture Organisation of the United Nations have recognised that more than two billion people worldwide suffer from a variety of micronutrient deficiencies. Although biofortification is not the sole solution to these deficiencies, it represents a big step towards reducing their prevalence and the health problems they can cause. Dr Alexander Johnson, a plant biologist based in the School of Botany at the University of Melbourne, has genetically engineered rice to increase its iron concentrations by 400% and zinc concentrations by 200%. Zinc is another micronutrient essential for good health, yet billions of people are at risk of being deficient in it. Working with researchers involved in the HarvestPlus Challenge Program, a global initiative aimed at developing more nutritious crops, Dr Johnson used biotechnology to increase the amount of iron transported to the endosperm of the grain (the part people eat in white rice). It’s a tricky process, but one with a simple explanation. Rice naturally produces a chemical compound called nicotianamine (NA), which increases uptake of iron from soil and prevents iron from precipitating as it is transported throughout the plant. Genes that control the production of NA, known as nicotianamine synthase (NAS) genes, are tightly regulated and only turn on at high levels when the plant senses that it needs more iron. “ What we have been able to do is turn on the NAS genes all the time, not only during times of low iron,” Dr Johnson says. “ This results in rice plants with an enhanced ability to absorb iron from soil and, more importantly, to load more iron into the grain.” As an added benefit, the NAS gene strategy also increased the concentration of zinc in the grain. Experts estimate that about 14 ppm (parts per million) of iron is needed in rice endosperm to provide enough dietary iron in rice-based diets, yet traditional breeding to increase iron in rice endosperm has not reached even half of that value. Using biotechnology, Dr Johnson and his team were able to increase the iron concentration in rice endosperm to 19 ppm. Dr Johnson is now training a new generation of researchers in this important field, through programs such as the Master of Science in the Melbourne Graduate School of Science. The Master of Science provides the perfect foundation for scientific leaders in research, industry or business through a combination of training in scientific disciplines, business skills such as financial and communication skills, and experience in a research or industry environment.