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Team finds an economical way to boost the vitamin A content of maize

A team of plant geneticists and crop scientists has pioneered an economical approach to the selective breeding of maize that can boost levels of provitamin A, the precursors that are converted to vitamin A upon consumption. This innovation could help to enhance the nutritional status of millions of people in the developing world.

The new method is described this week in the journal Science.

The team includes scientists from Cornell University, the University of Illinois, Boyce Thompson Institute, DuPont Crop Genetics Research, the University of North Carolina, the City University of New York, the International Maize and Wheat Improvement Center and the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

The innovation involves a new approach for selecting the parent stock for breeding maize, and significantly reduces the ambiguity and expense of finding varieties that yield the highest provitamin A content available. As part of this investigation, the researchers have identified a naturally mutated enzyme that enhances the provitamin A content of maize.

Vitamin A deficiency is a leading cause of eye disease and other health disorders in the developing world. Some 40 million children are afflicted with eye disease, and another 250 million suffer with health problems resulting from a lack of dietary vitamin A.

Maize is the dominant subsistence crop in much of Sub-Saharan Africa and the Americas, the researchers write, where between 17 and 30 percent of children under the age of 5 are vitamin A deficient.

Maize also is one of the most genetically diverse food crops on the planet, said Torbert Rocheford, a professor of plant genetics in the department of crop sciences at Illinois and a corresponding author on the paper.

This diversity is tantalizing to those hoping to make use of desirable traits, but it also provides a formidable challenge in trying to understand the genetic basis of those attributes.

One hurdl

Contact: Diana Yates
University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign

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