March 24, 2004

Jazzing Up Jasmine: Atomically Modified Rice in Asia?

A nanotech research initiative in Thailand aims to atomically modify the characteristics of local rice varieties — including the country's famous jasmine rice — and to circumvent the controversy over Genetically Modified Organisms (GMOs). Nanobiotech takes agriculture from the battleground of GMOs to the brave new world of Atomically Modified Organisms (AMOs).

In January 2004, Bangkok Post reported on a three-year research project at Chiang Mai University's nuclear physics laboratory,(1) funded by the National Research Council of Thailand, to atomically-modify rice. The research involves drilling a nano-sized hole (a nanometer is one-billionth of a meter) through the wall and membrane of a rice cell in order to insert a nitrogen atom. The hole is drilled using a particle beam (a stream of fast-moving particles, not unlike a lightening bolt) and the nitrogen atom is shot through the hole to stimulate rearrangement of the rice's DNA.

Pipe Dreams from Particle Beams? One of the attractions of this technique, according to the director of the Fast Neutron Research Facility in Chiang Mai where the research is being conducted, is that it does not require the usual (and controversial) technique of genetic modification, where genes are transferred between unrelated organisms or are removed or rearranged within a species. "At least we can avoid it," Thiraphat Vilaithong, the Facility director said.(2)

"We don't consider atomically modified rice any safer or more socially acceptable than genetically modified rice," explained Witoon Lianchamroon of Biodiversity Action Thailand (BIOTHAI), a civil society organization based in Bangkok. "It sounds like the same high-tech approach that does not address our needs and could cause severe hardships for Thai rice farmers."

According to BIOTHAI, scientists at Chaing Mai University have already used nanotechnology to modify the colour of a local rice variety, "Khao Kam."(3) The word "Kam" means deep purple, and the rice variety is known for its purple stem, leaves and grains. Using nanotechnology, the scientists changed the colour of the leaves and stems of Khao Kam from purple to green. In a telephone interview, Dr. Thirapat Vilaithong told BIOTHAI that their next target is Jasmine rice. The goal of their research is to develop Jasmine varieties that can be grown all year long, with shorter stems and improved grain colour.

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