Written by: Samantha Hong
Edited by: Carlie Darefsky
In countries where foods rich in vitamins are not easily accessible, many people struggle to receive sufficient nutrients, resulting in various vitamin deficiencies. One such deficiency involves vitamin A, a vitamin crucial for maintaining one’s vision, immune system, and reproductive health. The most common effect of vitamin A deficiency (VAD) is xerophthalmia, a condition reducing visibility in low light that can lead to blindness . To combat this, scientists have turned to a developing biological technology called provitamin carotenoid biofortification.
Biofortification can be described as the synthetic fortification of food in order to enhance its nutritional value. Provitamin carotenoid is a type of pigment produced by photosynthesizing organisms. When digested by the human body, provitamin carotenoids can be broken down into vitamin A. Therefore, by genetically modifying common foods to include provitamin carotenoid, vitamin A could be accessible to those without access to naturally vitamin-rich foods.
Although this development could help improve vitamin A deficiencies, one concern is that provitamin carotenoid biofortification could make the modified foods unsafe to eat. To study the possible negative effects, scientist Norman Oliva and his team utilized recombinant-DNA techniques, the joining of DNA from two different species, to fortify rice with provitamin carotenoid. To determine whether or not the modified rice was unsafe, scientists tested for a wide range of red flags, such as amino acid sequences found in known toxins and genetic markers that suggest low digestibility.  Researchers discovered that the biofortified rice did not raise any of these red flags, providing evidence that foods fortified with provitamin carotenoid are safe for human consumption.
Oliva’s study is particularly exciting due to its choice of food: rice. One of the populations most affected by VAD is South Asia, where rice is a common staple food. In fact, in South Asia rice makes up about two-thirds of the average individual. This number would likely be higher in low-income households, where food staples are the primary source of nutrition. Rice, however, is not the most nutrient-rich, resulting in those in South Asia having a higher risk of developing VAD.  Therefore, the fact that Oliva’s study showed no safety concerns is especially compelling, as the biofortification of rice would have immediate utility for those living in South Asia.