by DIANNE FETTERLY
A new strain of corn developed by researchers at the University of Guelph could help in the fight against macular degeneration, an eye disease which can lead to blindness in older people.
The new breed of corn has high levels of lutein and zeaxanthin, both antioxidants known to protect against the age-related disease. Older adults have low levels of the antioxidants, making them more susceptible to the illness.
According to plant researcher Elizabeth Lee, the University of Guelph team began extracting genetic material from South American maize in 2000. That particular variety of corn can’t grow in Ontario but it was crossed with North American corn to create a new variety with higher levels of the beneficial antioxidants.
“Corn naturally has low levels of (lutein and zeaxanthin), but this corn has higher levels than anything ever reported,” said Lee.
But the crop scientist isn’t suggesting people eat the new corn strain. Instead, her team has fed the corn to laying hens, which in turn produced eggs with high levels of the antioxidants. Lee explained that a darker yellow colour in the egg yolk is the result of the high carotenoid corn.
While doctors usually suggest a diet high in leafy greens to help in the fight against macular degeneration, the new findings could provide another source of the beneficial antioxidants.
The Guelph researchers began growing the new corn strain in two, half-acre plots, and by the summer of 2010 had produced enough grain to begin feeding trials. They started the trials in January 2011 and continued the feeding regime for four to five months, collecting the eggs and testing them for levels of the antioxidants.
Once tested, it was discovered that the eggs had lower levels of lutein than eggs produced by chickens fed marigold petals. However, the trial eggs also contained the zeaxanthin.
“You can already buy eggs with high lutein, from chickens fed marigold petals. But zeaxanthin is also important, and in theory, feeding this corn to chickens can give us both,” Lee said.
The finding could not only be beneficial to consumers and egg producers, but there could also be a potential market for corn producers, growing the speciality corn for chicken rations, she added.
So why don’t researchers create a new strain of sweet corn with higher levels of lutein and zeaxanthin for consumers? “That’s something were thinking of trying,” Lee said. BF