Mary Lou Guerinot

Biology professor Mary Lou Guerinot and her research team have discovered a plant that could change the way food staples like rice and wheat deliver iron, hopefully eliminating anemia in women and children in the developing world.

HANOVER — Researchers at Dartmouth College have discovered a gene in plants that regulates the uptake of iron, raising hopes for genetically altered foods to combat anemia.

“Over two billion people suffer from iron deficient anemia,” said Mary Lou Guerinot. “It mostly causes serious health problems for women and children.”

In parts of the world where people rely on plant-based diets, consuming a lot of wheat and rice, iron deficient anemia is common. Guerinot said the research team at Dartmouth is close to understanding how the newly discovered gene works, meaning they are close to being able to edit genes in plants like rice and wheat to take on more iron as the plants grow.

“Once we know how a plant takes up iron, we hope we can improve the system so plants take up more iron,” she said.

Guerinot and her team have discovered the URI gene, known as Upstream Regulator of IRT1, and it controls when genes should be expressed in the root of a plant to begin iron uptake. URI controls as many as 1,500 other genes, including those that have nothing to do with iron.

“Our research found that the abundance of the URI protein is not changed by iron conditions,” said Sun A. Kim, one of the researchers on the team and lead author on the research paper.

“Faced with the finding that the protein is always present, we went on to investigate if the URI protein is modified in response to iron availability to alter its activity.”

Guerinot said plants tend to be conservative when it comes to taking up iron as they grow, as too much iron can be toxic to the plants.

“Plants tend to over-regulate, they take up iron but then they turn it off very quickly,” she said

She said the plants can be genetically reset to take up more iron without being toxic, and have the iron present for people when they consume the plant-based foods.

The team found that under iron-poor conditions, the URI protein combines with a phosphate molecule and activates a sequence of genetic events to turn on the iron uptake system. Guerinot said the isn’t sure exactly how the phosphorylation process works, but they are close.

The goal, according to Guerinot, is to be able to edit the genes of the plants with the CRISPR technology. Plants altered with the gene editing CRISPR tools are regulated differently from the transgenic-GMO plants, she said. This could mean the iron rich plants will be able to get to the people who need them faster.

The research team is now focusing on developing a plant with a regulator that stays in the “on” position for a longer amount of time. The team’s goal is to have plants take up enough iron to benefit human consumers of plants.

“Foods in many of the staple diets around the world are not a good source of iron, like red meat. This research discovery could provide iron for people who are not already getting it,” Guerinot said.

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