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Feeding Billions

[ The University of Melbourne Voice Vol. 6, No. 5  3 May - 13 June 2010 ]

Food staples with low concentrations of micronutrients cause chronic nutritional problems for people in many areas of the world. Erin Wilson reports on research into the development of new cereal varieties which can provide essential micronutrients that are often lacking in human diets.

Rice, one of the most widely consumed cereal grains in developing countries, provides up to 80 per cent of total caloric intake in areas such as South-East Asia yet the polished grain – commonly referred to as “white rice” – contains very low concentrations of essential micronutrients such as iron (Fe). As a result, over 2 billion people, or 30 per cent of the world’s population, suffer from Fe deficiency with symptoms ranging from poor mental development in children, to depressed immune function and anaemia.

Dr Alexander Johnson, based in the School of Botany at the University of Melbourne, is using biotechnology to generate new cereal varieties that load increased concentrations of Fe into the grain, an approach known as “biofortification.”

Unlike mineral supplements, which are expensive and rely heavily on health infrastructures for dispersal, biofortified crops offer a cheap, reliable and sustainable solution to Fe and other micronutrient deficiencies.

Dr Johnson’s initial research in rice has yielded exciting results, with increases of up to threefold more Fe in white rice, and he is now expanding the program to include other cereal species such as wheat.

Dr Johnson is also developing a new generation of researchers in this important field, through the Master of Science in the Melbourne Graduate School of Science. MSc (Botany) student Skye Shields is currently researching the biotech rice that has been developed in the Johnson lab, using a variety of molecular tools to better understand the genetic mechanisms responsible for the high-iron grain. The results of this study are an important step in characterising the rice plants before they are tested in the field. The study may also shed light on new mechanisms that could be used to generate other crops with enhanced nutrient levels.

Professor Robert Saint, the Dean of the Faculty of Science believes the Master of Science will provide the perfect foundation for scientific leaders in research, industry or business.

“The Master of Science offers students a unique combination of training in scientific disciplines, training in business skills such as financial and communication skills and experience in a research or industry environment,” Professor Saint says.

“It offers students the opportunity to gain an internationally recognised postgraduate degree, as their pathway to research or industry either here in Australia or anywhere in the world.”

Associate Dean (Graduate Programs), Professor Aleks Owczarek believes the benefits of the Melbourne Master of Science rest on its core purpose of training candidates to become scientists with real flexible skills and a depth of knowledge in their chosen field.

“It is this ability of the Melbourne MSc to provide real depth in a broad range of disciplines coupled with additional skills for career readiness that really sets it apart, making it unique in the Australian scene,” states Professor Owczarek.

Master of Science (Genetics) graduate Ms Sally Beard found the program to be beneficial for both current and future career plans.

“Undertaking the Master of Science enabled me to meet people which has led to me gaining a job,” comments Ms Beard.

“The collaborations I’ve made throughout my degree have enabled me to work in my chosen field. Having a Masters degree that’s recognised throughout the world will also enable my career to develop overseas.”

The Melbourne Graduate School of Science has provided over $500,000 in funding for local students, with up to fifty $10,000 National Scholarships available for students entering the following MSc streams: Botany, Chemistry, Earth Sciences, Genetics, Information Systems, Mathematics & Statistics, Physics, Vision Sciences, and Zoology.

Professor Saint looks forward to the growing list of Master of Science graduates.

“There’s a strong interest in the Master of Science, from those at the beginning of their career through to established professionals wishing to improve their skills. It’s truly an exciting time for us, as we see our new Masters graduates emerge as scientific leaders in a variety of organisations and as we see them contributing to, and engaging in, activities that are beneficial to the community, both here in Australia and internationally. Our Masters degrees set a new benchmark in the quality of postgraduate science education in Australia. A benchmark that’s truly international in its standing.”

To find out more about available scholarships, and to hear more from Professor Saint and Ms Beard in the Master of Science video, visit:

Further information on Dr Johnson’s research is available at:

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