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Rat genes increase Vitamin C in plants

BLACKSBURG, Va., July 27, 2001 Genes from the lowly rat may hold the key to increasing Vitamin C in the worlds food supply. Craig Nessler, head of plant physiology, pathology, and weed science at Virginia Tech, has found that by transferring certain rat genes into lettuce, he can turn on the plants latent Vitamin-C-producing pathway. In laboratory experiments using that process, he increased the level of Vitamin C in lettuce by 700 percent.

But Nessler says we shouldnt expect to see the rat-altered lettuce in grocery stores. "We realize that a plant altered by a rat gene wouldnt appeal to consumers," he says.

He and his colleagues are using what theyve learned from the rat-gene work to try to discover other ways to stimulate the Vitamin C gene in lettuce and other plants.

Nessler chose to use rats in his research because the gene was readily available and rodents are natural producers of Vitamin C.

"The reason sailors on their way to the new world got scurvy while rats thrived was because humans have lost the ability we once had to make our own Vitamin C, while rats have retained it," he explains. Humans still have the gene, but a genetic defect has rendered it inoperative.

Nessler says his work is a specific way to do what nature has been doing throughout the earths history the hybridization of plants. "Nature does it by chance, and farmers have been doing cross-pollination by hand for years," he says. "But now we have the ability, through biotechnology, to be very specific in what new traits we introduce into plants."

According to Nessler, the method plants use to produce vitamin C is virtually unknown to scientists. They do know, however, that the vitamin serves as a preservative, and theorized that if they could increase the level of Vitamin C in lettuce, the product would have longer shelf life. It also might help keep salad-bar lettuce fresh which would be welcomed by the restaurant industry. Vitamin C is a natural produ
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Contact: Dr. Craig Nessler
cnessler@vt.edu
540-231-6361
Virginia Tech
27-Jul-2001


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