A scientist duo has devised a way to genetically enhance the nutritional value of corn. This feat becomes particularly important as it could reduce the number of children in developing countries who lose their eyesight, become ill or die each year because of vitamin A deficiencies.
Corn contains carotenoids, some of which the body can convert to vitamin A.
Beta-carotene is the best vitamin A precursor, but only a very small percentage of corn varieties have naturally high beta-carotene levels.
In Africa and other developing regions, corn is a major staple and hundreds of thousands of children become blind, develop weakened immune systems and die because of diets based largely on corn that lacks sufficient beta-carotene.
Agricultural Research Service (ARS) scientists Marilyn Warburton and Edward Buckler identified genetic sequences linked to higher beta-carotene levels in corn and demonstrating an inexpensive and fast way to identify corn plants that will produce even higher levels.
The study is considered a breakthrough in nutritional plant breeding, reports Nature.
In the study, the researchers surveyed the genetic sequences of corn from around the world through association mapping, a method made possible by recent breakthroughs that accelerate the genetic profiling of crops.
The genetic survey revealed natural variations in one gene sequence linked to higher beta-carotene levels.
These variations interacted with a gene identified previously, and the best variations of the two genes together led to an 18-fold increase in beta-carotene, according to Warburton.
The mapping survey identified molecular markers that breeders can use to incorporate the desired gene variants into corn for the developing world.
The researchers are now working with breeders oversees to train them on use of the new techniques.
The study was recently published in Nature Genetics.