MIAMI: Scientists have found a way to genetically engineer corn to produce an amino acid contained in meat, boosting the nutritional value of one of the world’s most important crops.
The process involved inserting a bacterial gene that causes corn to make methionine, a crucial nutrient for the health of skin, nail and hair.
Researchers said the discovery could benefit millions of people in the developing world who depend on corn as a staple, and could reduce animal feed costs, according to the report in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS), a peer-reviewed US journal.
“We improved the nutritional value of corn, the largest commodity crop grown on Earth,” said co-author Professor Thomas Leustek from the Department of Plant Biology at Rutgers University.
“Most corn is used for animal feed, but it lacks methionine – a key amino acid – and we found an effective way to add it.”
The sulfur in methionine “protects cells from pollutants, slows cell ageing and is essential for absorbing selenium and zinc”, the PNAS report said.
Already, industries spend billions adding synthetic methionine to field corn seed, which does not naturally contain this amino acid, in order to help livestock grow.
Co-author Professor Joachim Messing, who directs the Waksman Institute of Microbiology, said this is a “costly, energy-consuming process”.
The new method involved inserting an E. coli bacterial gene into the corn plant’s genome.
The E. coli enzyme caused methionine production in the plant’s leaves, and methionine in corn kernels increased by 57 per cent, the study said.
The process did not affect plant growth.
Scientists fed the genetically engineered corn to chickens at Rutgers University and found it was nutritious for them, said Prof Messing.
Prof Leustek told AFP that “in principle, the technology could be quickly deployed, within a couple of years”.
“The transgene that we developed can easily be inserted into commercial…