UK scientists on a mission to prevent arsenic poisoning from rice

11 December 2018

A team of UK scientists are investigating rice plants in a bid to find out whether people are inadvertently consuming dangerous levels of arsenic – a deadly poison and carcinogen – through rice, meat and dairy products.

It is estimated that arsenic contamination in food and water affects nearly 140 million people across 70 countries – South Asia being the most severely affected where rice is consumed as the staple food.

Both the husk and rice straw parts of the plant are used to feed farm animals, which could mean that people are inadvertently also eating arsenic through meat and dairy products. But different types of rice absorb the poison differently – and this is the area the researchers, led by Dr Manoj Menon at the University of Sheffield, hope to shed some light on.

The project will study how arsenic spreads through rice plants by using X-ray imaging facilities at the UK’s synchrotron source, Diamond Light Source, at the Harwell Campus in Oxfordshire.

Dr Menon said: “We are hoping that by finding out more about how arsenic is distributed in rice plant parts and grains, we will ultimately be making it safer for people to eat. Currently we are examining arsenic levels in 55 different rice types marketed in the UK.”

Rice is one of the most widely-consumed cereals in the world – but if it is grown in regions where soil and water are naturally rich in arsenic, the poison can enter into the food chain badly affecting the human health when rice is eaten in large enough quantities. It is possible that rice grown in contaminated regions poses a serious health risk to humans as well as livestock fed with rice straw and bran, but different types of rice vary in how much of the arsenic they take up and accumulate. Even less is understood about which parts of the rice plant accumulate the most arsenic.

Dr Menon continued: “Our preliminary results show that we can map arsenic in different parts of rice grains using the Diamond experimental facilities. These are early-stage results which I hope proves that more research needs to be done to understand arsenic accumulation patterns in different rice cultivars grown in some of the worst affected areas such as Bangladesh and India. We are also aiming to understand the public awareness of arsenic impacts on human health and the environment in these regions.”

Professor Fred Mosselmans from the Diamond Light Source, who is also part of the research team, said: “Diamond provides an enormous number of X-rays that can be focused into a very small spot enabling arsenic in very small amounts to be detected in particular regions of the grain. A light source like Diamond is the only way to get such sensitivity to both small size and low concentration.”

The team will now expand their research to explore the different ways arsenic enters into the food chain, select rice cultivars that have less arsenic accumulation, and develop cultivation practices that reduce arsenic accumulation in rice.

To expand this research, the team has established new collaborations with Bangladesh Agricultural University and the Indian Institute of Technology Kharagpur. They hope their work will have the potential to prevent millions of people from being inadvertently poisoned with arsenic through rice consumption.

The research project has been funded by the STFC Food Network+, which brings together researchers from across different disciplines in the agri-food sector to work together with experts from STFC’s research facilities with the aim of solving some of the world’s greatest food sustainability challenges.

Find out more about the network and the other projects being funded on the STFC Food Network+ website.

Notes to Editors

Diamond Light Source is a third generation synchrotron light source facility based at Harwell Campus, South Oxfordshire.

Diamond produces X-ray, infrared and ultra-violet beams. These highly focused beams of light enable scientists and engineers to probe deep into the basic structure of matter and materials, answering fundamental questions about everything from the building blocks of life to the origin of our planet.

Synchrotron light is an indispensable tool in many research areas including physics, chemistry, materials science and crystallography. In addition, synchrotron light is increasingly being exploited by new communities such as medicine, geological and environmental studies, structural genomics and archaeology.

The Diamond Light Source Ltd is funded by the STFC and the Wellcome Trust, owning 86% and 14% of the shares respectively.

Last updated: 12 December 2018

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