There has been another breakthrough in breeding for vitamin A in maize (corn) by a team of researchers. The team that includes Torbert Rocheford, a longtime HarvestPlus collaborator, has identified a set of genes that can naturally increase the amounts of vitamin A that maize can provide.

Previous research by Rocheford and his colleagues supported by HarvestPlus identified two genes that contribute to provitamin A carotenoid levels in corn kernels (See: New Method to Improve Provitamin A Content in Maize and More Vitamin A from Maize?).

Provitamin A carotenoids such as beta-carotene are natural plant pigments that the body converts into vitamin A. The researchers used a combination of statistical analysis and prediction models to evaluate genes associated with carotenoid levels in maize and uncovered four genes that had not previously been linked to carotenoid levels in maize kernels.

Though many genes likely contribute to carotenoid levels in maize, "we're pretty confident that our previous and current research has now identified several genes that are the major players," Rocheford said. "This study gives us the genetic blueprint to quickly and cost-effectively convert white or yellow corn to orange corn that is rich in carotenoids – and we can do so using natural plant breeding methods, not transgenics," said Rocheford.

Vitamin A deficiency is a major public health problem, especially in Africa south of the Sahara. It causes blindness in 250,000 to 500,000 children every year, half of whom die within a year of losing their eyesight, according to the World Health Organization. By developing and disseminating staple food crops rich in micronutrients such as vitamin A, including maize, cassava, and orange sweet potato, HarvestPlus and its partners hope to improve the nutritional status of millions of people in Africa and Asia.

Vitamin A maize is already being disseminated to thousands of farmers in Zambia. According to Dr. Wolfgang Pfeiffer, Deputy Director of Operations for HarvestPlus, "this new breakthrough will accelerate development of future vitamin A maize varieties and increase breeding effectiveness."

The research team included scientists from Purdue University, Cornell University, Michigan State University, and the USDA Agricultural Research Service with support from the National Science Foundation and HarvestPlus among others. Read the full press release from Purdue University