Researchers at Purdue University have discovered a novel solution to the world's growing epidemic of blindness in children due to vitamin A deficiency: feed them orange corn.
The researchers have identified a gene in maize that, when manipulated, can toggle the levels of beta-carotene content in corn kernels, according to Purdue University. Beta-carotene, which is what gives carrots their orange color, is what the human body uses to create vitamin A during digestion.
"We're sort of turbocharging corn with desirable natural variation to make it darker and more nutritious," said Torbert Rocheford, the professor of agronomy at Purdue who led the study.
Orange corn is already a natural variety popular in South American and Caribbean nations, as well as in northern Italy where it is often used for polenta. But in Africa and parts of Southeast Asia, where most of the world's vitamin A deficiency occurs, only white or yellow corn is typically produced.
It's a problem with horrific consequences. As many as 500,000 children in the developing world go blind every year because they don't get enough vitamin A, according to the World Health Organization. Even more alarming, half of those children typically die within a year of going blind. Replacing stocks of white or yellow corns with orange-colored varieties could go a long way toward preventing most of those deaths.
The solution could even be adapted to help fix problems in Western industrialized nations, too. Aside from increased beta-carotene, orange corn can be made rich in the micronutrient zeaxanthin, which makes up 75 percent of the central macula in human eyes. According to the American Macular Degeneration Foundation, macular degeneration is the leading cause of blindness in people over 55, and zeaxanthin can help protect against it.
"It's like a designer gene. We can select one version for the U.S. population to increase zeaxanthin and a different version to increase beta-carotene for the needs of the developing world," said Rocheford.
The only real obstacle to implementing the change to orange corn may come from picky consumers who have grown accustomed to the color of their corn. But Rocheford, who recently returned from a trip to Zambia where orange corn was readily accepted, thinks the transition could come easily.