Forget getting your vitamin E from an uninspiring supplement you wash down with a glass of water each morning. Thanks to work by USDA scientists you may soon be able to get the same amount of vitamin E offered by that tasteless pill from a much tastier, buttered ear of corn.
Edgar Cahoon, a research molecular biologist with the USDA-ARS Plant Genetics Research Unit, and his colleagues from DuPont Crop Genetics have produced corn with six times the vitamin E content of regular corn.
“Most of the biotechnology we hear about — Roundup-Ready soybeans, Bt corn — has been directed toward reducing the farmer's input costs,” Cahoon says. “Our research, however, involves the development of a trait that improves the dietary quality of food.”
Vitamin E positively affects human health because it is a powerful antioxidant that protects cells from oxidation damage caused by “free radicals.” These radicals attack the cells' membranes, proteins and DNA, contributing to the development of health problems such as heart disease, diabetes, cataracts and cancer.
Beyond human health benefits, the antioxidant qualities of vitamin E will help corn resist spoilage caused by free radical-mediated oxidation, lengthening the shelf life of vegetable oils, which contain Vitamin E, and processed foods produced from those vegetable oils. Cahoon says the increase of vitamin E in leaves and other tissues may also increase the productivity of corn plants in the field.
Although vitamin E corn does have many other benefits, it was originally produced for a Pioneer Hi-Bred study aimed to improve the quality of corn for livestock feed applications. After studying how vitamin E is made in cereal grains such as barley, wheat and rice, researchers identified a key gene responsible for the production of the vitamin in barley seeds and introduced that gene into corn seeds.
“The combination of the gene and where it is expressed gives the high level of this type of vitamin E,” William Hitz, a Research Fellow with Pioneer Hi-Bred International, Inc., who was also involved in the project, says.
This discovery, which could not have been accomplished by traditional plant breeding, shows biotechnology can benefit the consumer directly, Cahoon says.
Vitamin E corn must be tested extensively before it is available for consumers. First, it must be evaluated on its agronomic performance and its value in livestock feed applications. If these tests are successful, vitamin E corn will be tested for regulatory approval, which can be time-consuming.
“My best guess is five to seven years before this product is available, if it is decided that the trait will be commercially viable,” Cahoon says.
He says a new market for corn could be created with the commercial availability of vitamin E corn since the antioxidant is isolated from vegetable oils for use in dietary supplements.
“By increasing the vitamin E content six-fold, it is more likely that processors can use corn oil for the production of vitamin E for nutraceutical applications,” Cahoon says.