CROWLEY, La. — The LSU AgCenter is working with a humanitarian organization on a genetically engineered product known as Golden Rice that could help reduce malnutrition in developing countries.

It has been genetically modified to produce beta-carotene, which human bodies convert to vitamin A. The distinctive amber hue from beta carotene led to the name Golden Rice.

In many countries, vitamin A deficiency causes numerous health problems, including a form of blindness and a weakened immune system.

In 1999, scientists in Europe successfully inserted genes from daffodils and bacteria into rice DNA. Those cause rice to express beta carotene.

In 2001, scientists in Japan inserted the genes into the Cocodrie rice variety. Since Cocodrie was developed at the LSU AgCenter Rice Research Station in 1998, it has become the most widely used variety of rice grown in the United States.

After evaluation and seed increase in growth chambers and greenhouses, Golden Rice was brought to the Rice Research Station this year to be grown in small test plots.

“This is the first field evaluation where Golden Rice actually has been grown on any level in the field anywhere in the world,” said Steve Linscombe, the LSU AgCenter’s regional director for southwestern Louisiana and its chief rice breeder.

The test, conducted in cooperation with the Golden Rice Humanitarian Board, also included Golden Rice varieties from the Philippines and Taiwan, he said.

Linscombe said preliminary results indicate the yield of the genetically modified Cocodrie is comparable to conventional Cocodrie grown in the plots for comparison.

The next step is to have the harvested rice tested by trained tasters. But Linscombe said it’s not likely that Golden Rice will be planted by farmers for a while.

“I would say the earliest is two to three years,” Linscombe said, adding that it probably will be grown in areas of the world where rice is the staple food crop.

“This may or may not be anything U.S. producers actually grow. We don’t know what its potential is,” Linscombe said.

In addition to rice, the genes for beta carotene could be inserted into other crops, according to experts. “This is a first step of many different things that can be accomplished,” Linscombe said.

The LSU AgCenter has donated its rights to Cocodrie for use with Golden Grain for humanitarian reasons, according to Linscombe.

“We’re looking at it more from the standpoint of humanitarian, long-term, indirect research with field evaluation with genetically enhanced lines,” he said.

“We also think this is a very important mechanism to inform the public of the value of genetic engineering. This is a very important step down the road that would not be possible without genetic engineering.”

Much of the opposition to genetically modified organisms has resulted from misinformation, Linscombe said, but Golden Rice has the potential to demonstrate how genetic engineering can be used to help people.

“We look at this as a good mechanism for informing the public that genetic engineering does have a lot of positive benefits,” he said. “This is just one example of many things to come down the road. This is the first step of many different things that can be accomplished with genetic engineering — and not just in rice.”

Bruce Schultz writes for the LSU AgCenter. e-mail: bschultz@agcenter.lsu.edu.