US biotech to plant GM rice with human genes

Published: Sunday 15 April 2007

on february 28, 2007, the us department of agriculture (usda) gave preliminary draft approval to a biotech company to plant genetically modified rice to produce human proteins, amidst fears about its risk to human health. If the project, proposed by California-based Ventria Biosciences, gets final approval it will be the first time a plant containing human and plant genes will have been grown commercially.

As per the proposal, three rice varieties will be developed over 1,214 hectares (ha) in Kansas, usa, two producing lactoferrins and one producing lysozyme. These are proteins that fight bacteria and are normally found in breast milk and saliva. The genes have been copied and produced synthetically before being transported into rice via a bacterial vector. The proteins will then be extracted from rice and incorporated into food items like oral rehydration drinks and yoghurts.

The company claims these products can be used to treat problems like diarrhoea and stomach bugs. A recent Ventria study claims children with severe diarrhoea recovered a day and a half faster if the prescribed salty fluids included proteins. It markets the technology as one that "saves lives".

The Kansas government has welcomed the company. "Agriculture has long been the backbone of our economy, so it's appropriate we take this opportunity to make the most of scientific advances in plant-made pharmaceuticals," said Kansas governor Kathleen Sebelius. A processing facility for the rice varieties has been given green light and is expected to contribute us$40 million to the Kansas economy by the time it is fully operational.

However, many organisations are worried. "I'm concerned because firstly, there is a possibility that the rice may get into the food supply, and secondly, it hasn't been tested," said Bill Freese of the us Center for Food Safety, an advocacy group. "It hasn't gone through a drug review process. So we're dealing with something that could cause harm to human health." But usda claims that since Ventria had taken precautions and Kansas was not a rice-growing state, there was "virtually no risk".

The public have until the end of March to submit objections. Ventria hopes to start planting by April.

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