Natural ‘golden millet’ rivals ‘golden rice’

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Golden millet
[Hyderabad] Scientists in India have used conventional breeding techniques to develop a new variety of pearl millet containing high levels of beta-carotene, a nutrient that is vital for healthy vision.

The team of scientists at the International Crops Research Institute for the Semi Arid Tropics (ICRISAT) has called their discovery ‘golden millet’. This is both a reference to its yellow grains, and an apparent allusion to the ‘golden rice’ that has been genetically modified to produce beta-carotene.

“Golden millet that has beta-carotene is a product of natural genetic variation; no genetic engineering is involved,” says Tom Hash, principal breeder at ICRISAT. He points out that although it may not be eaten as widely as rice, pearl millet forms the staple diet for millions of poor people in Africa and India.

Beta-carotene (also known as provitamin A) is a precursor of vitamin A, a lack of which is a major cause of blindness in developing countries. ‘Golden rice’ has been hailed by some as a miracle crop to tackle vitamin A deficiency. But others have criticised the involvement of multinational biotechnology companies in its development.

“To have a staple food with a naturally high content of beta-carotene would be the easiest way to alleviate vitamin A deficiency,” says Juergen Erhardt, a researcher at the University of Hohenheim in Germany, who collaborated on the ICRISAT project.

Hash and his co-workers say they stumbled across ‘golden millet’ during routine viability testing of the seed collections in ICRISAT’s germplasm bank. Two samples from Burkina Faso in West Africa were found to produce yellow-coloured grains that contained unusually high amounts of beta-carotene.

Starting with a handful of these yellow grains, the ICRISAT scientists have developed a line of pearl millet high in beta-carotene using conventional breeding techniques. Hash says that by using genetic marker techniques he could probably create golden millet of even higher beta-carotene content.

The ICRISAT team is now planning to transfer the beta-carotene trait into other pearl millet crops, especially hybrid crops, which grow in different parts of the world. But with recent budget cuts (see ‘Funding cuts hit Indian agricultural centre’, 22 February 2002), external funding will have to be sought.

“The golden millet is an exciting new alternative [to golden rice] that deserves further development,” says William Dar, director-general of ICRISAT. “But one should keep in mind that it would reduce — but not eliminate — the need for other sources of provitamin A.”

© SciDev.Net 2002