SPAIN AND GERMANY: Corn fortified with vitamins devised by scientists
Posted: April 28th, 2009 - 10:26am
Scientists have engineered vitamin-fortified corn designed to boost consumption of three key nutrients that are sorely lacking in the diets of millions of people in developing countries, according to a study published today.
The genetically modified African corn has bright orange kernels, reflecting the 169-fold increase in beta carotene, a precursor of vitamin A. The corn also has six times the normal amount of vitamin C and double the usual level of folate, researchers reported in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.
Though genetic engineering has been used to enhance vitamin content in a variety of crops -- including rice, potatoes, lettuce and tomatoes -- this is the first time scientists have been able to amplify multiple vitamins in a single plant.
"They really have made a major step forward here," said Martina Newell-McGloughlin, a plant pathologist at UC Davis who wasn't involved in the study. "I could see this transforming the field. It's just really cool stuff."
Corn breeders could potentially create the same plant by conventional means -- if they kept at it for several hundred years, Newell-McGloughlin said.
The researchers, from Spain and Germany, targeted this combination of vitamins because deficiencies in them cause many diseases in the developing world, said study leader Paul Christou of the University of Lleida in Spain. The beta carotene boost was the most dramatic because scientists are most familiar with the genes controlling that nutrient, he said.
The team inserted five genes from other organisms -- including rice and Escherichia coli -- into a popular South African white corn variety called M37W that Christou said is "completely devoid of vitamins."
To embed the genes into the corn's DNA, the researchers attached them to microscopic gold particles and shot them into immature corn embryos in a laboratory dish. When the cells divided, they contained the new genes.
The scientists' method ensures that the five genes are inserted in the genome together, so that they stick together in subsequent generations. The genes have stayed intact over four generations so far, according to the study.
These orange corn plants are just a proof of concept, the scientists added.
To grow in Africa, Central America or elsewhere, they would have to be crossed with the many corn varieties adapted to specific regions. That process could take 10 years, said Gary Toenniessen, an agriculture specialist at the Rockefeller Foundation in New York who is involved with the rollout of a genetically engineered crop, Golden Rice, fortified with beta carotene.
But most of the target countries in Africa don't have systems in place to evaluate and approve genetically modified crops, and several countries have banned them, Toenniessen said.