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Orange Corn Aims to Fight Vitamin A Deficiency

vitamin A blind

Corneal blindness often affects people at a young age, such as this twelve year old girl who is blind from vitamin A deficiency. She has had a penetrating corneal graft in her left eye; this has unfortunately failed. Image credit goes to: Lance Bellers

GMO food is still a hot button topic, honestly for no other reason than fear. Sure Monsanto is a big evil corporation, but the science is only as bad as what you do with it. In the modern fortified world we don’t think about vitamin deficiency or the horrible things that come with it, however vitamin A deficiency is a huge problem in developing countries. To combat this researchers have identified a set of genes that can be used to naturally boost the provitamin A content of corn kernels, a finding that could help combat vitamin A deficiency and macular degeneration in the elderly.

Researchers found gene variations that can be selected to change nutritionally poor white corn into biofortified orange corn with high levels of provitamin A carotenoids – substances that the human body can convert into vitamin A. Vitamin A plays key roles in eye health and the immune system, as well as in the synthesis of certain hormones.

 “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, the Patterson Endowed Chair of Translational Genomics for Crop Improvement.

Vitamin A deficiency causes blindness in 250,000 to 500,000 children every year, yes I did just say year. Of that half of them die within a year of losing their eyesight, this according to the World Health Organization. The problem most severely affects children in Sub-Saharan Africa, an area in which white corn, which has minimal amounts of provitamin A carotenoids, is a dietary mainstay.

Insufficient carotenoid are also been linked to macular degeneration in the elderly, a leading cause of blindness in older populations in Europe and the U.S.

Identifying the genes that determine carotenoid levels in corn kernels will help plant breeders develop novel biofortifed corn varieties for Africa and the U.S. As an added benefit, the dark orange color of these corn varieties also makes them more culturally acceptable to consumers in African countries where yellow corn is generally fed only to animals.

Previous research has identified two genes that contribute to provitamin A carotenoid levels in corn kernels, but

“we wanted more cookies in the jar for breeders to pick from,” Rocheford said.

The researchers used a combination of statistical analysis and prediction models to identify and assess the potential usefulness of genes associated with carotenoid levels in corn. They evaluated data sets from about 200 genetically diverse lines of corn at varying scopes of investigation – from the entire corn genome to stretches of DNA surrounding small sets of genes. They uncovered four genes that had not previously been linked to carotenoid levels in corn kernels.

Though many genes likely contribute to carotenoid levels in corn, “we’re pretty confident that our previous and current research has now identified several genes that are the major players,” Rocheford said.

Their study found that a combination of visually selecting corn with darker orange kernels and using a number of these favorable genes could be an effective way to rapidly convert white and yellow corn varieties to orange corn with higher levels of provitamin A and total carotenoids.

“We now have the genetic information needed to begin developing a major public-private sector collaboration with the goal of providing orange corn with high levels of provitamin A to farmers throughout Sub-Saharan Africa,” he said.

The study also showed that using a more targeted approach to predicting the usefulness of a small set of genes was as effective as evaluating the whole corn genome.

“Having this smaller list of genes to select for means that we can make the improvement of carotenoid levels in corn a simpler, faster process for plant breeders,” said Brenda Owens, first author of the study.

The research – in collaboration with HarvestPlus and the International Maize and Wheat Improvement Center, also known as CIMMYT – has yielded varieties of orange corn with markedly higher amounts of provitamin A carotenoids. But further efforts to produce even higher levels will be necessary to offset degradation of nutrients after harvest and reduce the amount of corn African consumers would need to eat to attain enough provitamin A.

Varieties of orange corn are currently being grown in Zambia, Zimbabwe, Nigeria and Ghana. An open-pollinated variety of orange corn could be available for organic and local grower operations in the U.S. by 2016. Ideally this orange corn will have a better reception than the other attempt at this, golden rice. Which thanks to the work of Greenpeace, who has single handedly killed young children and caused years of suffering thanks to their misguided efforts and fear mongering.

GMO golden rice

I hate to keep using this infographic but it is still very relevant in most GMO topics.

To be clear, that is not an opinion, that is a fact, vitamin A deficiency might not be a big deal here in the US or the UK. However it is a very real threat with very real consequences in other parts of the world. Greenpeace medaling in the affairs of another country so directly should not have happened and honestly it should be looked at as terrorist actions given the proven safety and health benefits of golden rice.

In short it is disgusting and I sincerely hope that the same fate isn’t in store for orange corn.

Correction: In an effort to be clear, I was contacted by a Perdue science writer who requested that I modify my article, I have since taken out the GMO label in the title in favor of simply orange corn. While I can understand that they might not want to be labeled with something as conscientious as “GMO” I still argue that there is no difference between this corn and my golden rice example in the sense that we are changing the genome of the corn, they are just using different methods to achieve the same end goal.

However I concede that she was correct in that GMO is a loaded term now and for this to succeed they need to be able to distance themselves from that idea. If there has been any confusion because of this I am truly sorry and I will admit that in normal circles and in the general media this is certainly not GMO, these genes are naturally occurring in the corn and are bread using traditional methods for selection.

Again my sincerest apologies and a thank you to Natalie van Hoose for putting up with my stubbornness on the semantics and taking the time to politely correct. Kudos to you in particular and what you guys are trying to do. Good luck with the project!


Owens BF, Lipka AE, Magallanes-Lundback M, Tiede T, Diepenbrock CH, Kandianis CB, Kim E, Cepela J, Mateos-Hernandez M, Buell CR, Buckler ES, DellaPenna D, Gore MA, & Rocheford TR (2014). A Foundation for Provitamin A Biofortification of Maize: Genome-Wide Association and Genomic Prediction Models of Carotenoid Levels. Genetics PMID: 25258377

3 responses

  1. After reading your article, I am unsure of how the “orange corn” is created. Is it simply cross breeding corn with favorable amounts of Vitamin A? Or, are genes from a particular breed of corn being implanted into the white- or yellow-corn? If cross-breeding through natural pollination is the method, then this is acceptable. If, there are scientists in a lab inserting genes from one crop into another (genetically modifying), then this project should also be scrapped.

    I look forward to your response.


    December 28, 2014 at 6:36 am

    • Ah, nevermind, I found my answer in the quote, “…and we can do so using natural plant breeding methods, not transgenics,” said Rocheford, the Patterson Endowed Chair of Translational Genomics for Crop Improvement.

      I will further investigate to confirm that traditional breeding is truly being utilized.

      I have also come across other articles discussing how there are 8 variations of sweet potatoes to be used in Africa to help combat Vitamin A deficiency. These variations have shown to be drought and flood resistant.

      The process of transgenics should be eradicated, and natural breeding should be utilized. Transgenics, or GMOs are only useful for corporations (Monsanto, DuPont, Bayer, Syngenta, etc…) and greedy individuals (Bill Gates, Rotheschild family, etc…) to increase their wealth and power, not to help feed and sustain the world’s population.


      December 28, 2014 at 6:43 am

      • You are confused, transgenics is just a subset of genetically modified foods, technically speaking even selective breeding falls under the “GMO” title. I mean think about it, genetically modified, if you are selectively breeding YOU are genetically modifying the food, not “nature.”

        Most GMO food created in labs are cisgenic foods, meaning of the same species, tomatoes to tomatoes, potatoes to potatoes, etc. Which is at worse a faster way of selectively breeding. However there is no reason to suspect that transgenic foods are harmful. In fact, I use the example of golden rice as a “GMO” food that had the power to save thousands of children from going blind, or even worse.

        Mindlessly boiling down a complex and useful technology to “Only useful for corporations and greedy individuals” is like saying the computer, the television, or the cell phone only helps the manufacturer. All technology has the ability to help or hurt people and while I agree Monsanto is a horrible organization with less than desirable morals, this is not the case with every group or even every “rich person”.

        For example the Bill and Melinda Gates foundation is run by (you guessed it) Bill gates and his wife. Bill actually retired from Microsoft to basically give money away full time and the organization (which they started) has used billions of dollars to help feed, vaccinate and educate people who would have otherwise had no hope. http://www.gatesfoundation.org/Who-We-Are/General-Information/Foundation-Factsheet (you can also check the finacinals if you are dubious).

        What I am trying to say (very round about apparently) is that there is no actual scientific proof that GMO food is bad. The term GMO in fact would include “traditional farming practices.” Most do not include mutagenesis in the GMO category (google it if you do not know what that is) which is personally more scary than deliberate genetic manipulation done in a lab.

        Lastly, mindlessly fearing technology because it sounds “scary” or seemingly has “no use” only helps the established companies like Monsanto because it helps deter any real competition. Fear misinformation and ignorance, not technology. Technology is neutral, it does not harm or help intrinsically. It’s all about what people do with it and “GMO” technologies have the potential to do great things, horrible things as well, but the same could be said about a lot of technologies.


        December 28, 2014 at 9:41 am

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