New Biotech Corn Gives Triple Vitamin Boost; Protestors Unmoved

By Rachel Cernansky | April 28, 2009 3:29 pm

corn1.jpgA new genetically modified (GM) corn that produces beta carotene and precursors of vitamin C and folic acid is the first crop to be engineered to make more than one vitamin. Says lead researcher Paul Christou: “The major message of the paper is that it’s possible to engineer crops with multiple nutrients…. If you look at other nutritionally enhanced GM crops, up until now people have only been able to increase levels of one nutrient or vitamin” [Wired]. But anti-GM campaigners have not been won over by the scientific feat, even though the research behind it was not funded by agricultural corporations.

The researchers 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” [Los Angeles Times]. They then bombarded the corn embryos with metal particles coated with chunks of DNA that, if taken up by the embryo, would alter its internal biochemical processes to make it produce the vitamins [BBC]. Follow-up analysis of plants grown from the modified seeds showed not only their successful manipulation, but that the changes lasted several generations. The changes amounted to a 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 [Los Angeles Times].

The corn hasn’t yet been tested for public consumption, and application in the field could take up to ten years. The lag wouldn’t necessarily be bad news for people who are opposed to the genetic modification of food, who worry that it will be difficult to contain GM crops and to be sure that all the people eating them were getting the correct dose of what they had been modified to make [BBC].

Christou notes that the research described in the study, published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, was funded entirely by public sources. “Our research is humanitarian in nature and targets impoverished people in developing countries” [BBC], he says. But activists point out that fortifying a food does not increase its accessibility, and argue that “golden rice” engineered to have a high dose of vitamin A is still not widely available. One campaigner says that “research efforts would be better placed ensuring that people are able to grow, or otherwise have access to, a diverse range of foods that will give many other health benefits” [BBC].

Related Content:
DISCOVER: Genetically Altered Corn tells how a corn not intended for humans got into the food supply
80beats: Will Europe Give in to Genetically Modified Foods?
80beats: Germany Joins the European Mutiny Over Genetically Modified Crops

Image: Flickr / eek the cat

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Environment, Health & Medicine
  • Sundance

    This is really one of those cases where the opponents of GM are being short-sighted, but they also have a point. This is surely the first step towards growing crops that will help improve the nutrition of a great many people, and may one day even lead to crops that produce vaccines against disease like malaria. On the other hand, if you want to get more vitamins and minerals in someone’s diet you can do it with crops that are available today, no development or testing needed – just feed them a wide variety of foods, and make sure they eat wholegrains instead of white rice/bread/whatever.

  • Nick

    It would be nice to see them engineering vegetables to grow well in the poorest conditions our planet faces and still produce vitamins, rather than making already poor vegetable choices merely okay.

    If they make a seed you can toss in the ground anywhere in Africa and eat from with minimal intervention, you’ve got a world-changer. Until then we’re really tackling the wrong problem. It’s good that they were using African corn, meaning it’ll probably survive well there, but why not take the genes that make the corn survive there and apply it to as many other vegetables as possible – and that would allow us to feed ourselves better in our rapidly desertifying southwestern US.

  • cathy

    It’s hard to see how creating another genetically engineered food crop whose seeds will be expensive to buy and whose growth is not suited to local environments and will likely require large inputs of water and petroleum-based fertilizers will benefit anyone except big agribusiness. We need to get back to diversification and growing crops which are well-suited to local environments. That is the trend that could save many more lives.

  • Barbara Pierce

    Why so much effort put into increasing the nutritional power of certain foods, when those that really need it are the least likely to consume it? Distribution of food amongst the world’s population is the major issue causing malnutrition and starvation – the world has plenty. The whole focus here is wrong, and looks more serving towards seed patent protection and thus even more control over the world’s food supply.

  • sharpin LA

    They are of limited bio availability, these GM foods. They are not natural molecular bonds. Your nutrition should come from your food or whole food supplements, not made in lab “vitamins” or anything of the sort. Especially not in GM / biotech foods that have bastardized nature.


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