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Univ. Spin-Off Developing High-Nutrition Corn

Evan Rocheford and corn

Evan Rocheford holds an ear of orange corn to compare with more common varieties in his other hand. (Purdue University)

6 Feb. 2019. A company spun-off from a university agriculture research lab is developing a variety of corn with more vitamin A and other nutrients missing from most other types. NutraMaize LLC in West Lafayette, Indiana is commercializing research by Torbert Rocheford, a professor of agriculture genomics at Purdue University, also in West Lafayette.

Rocheford’s lab at Purdue studies the genetic architecture of maize, the formal name for corn, to produce varieties with more nutritional value and other properties making this basic crop more valuable to growers and consumers. One of its projects is to boost the vitamin A content in corn with varieties containing carotenoids, that provide the dark orange and red pigments in some plants. But carotenoids contain vitamin A precursors beta-carotene and -cryptoxanthin, which provide anti-oxidants in the body as well.

Vitamin A deficiency is a condition that can lead to vision problems and according to World Health Organization is the main cause of preventable blindness, particularly in low income countries. It is considered a major public health problem in Africa and southeast Asia, affecting children and pregnant women, not only for vision problems, but also for increasing risks of severe infections. Lack of vitamin A can contribute as well to macular degeneration among the elderly, a condition leading as well to blindness.

WHO estimates 250 million preschool children worldwide are deficient in vitamin A, and between 250,000 and 500,000 children become blind each year because of vitamin A deficiency. The source of vitamin A is a healthy diet rich in carotenoids, but in Sub-Saharan Africa, white corn is a staple food that has minimal amounts of carotenoids.

As reported by Science & Enterprise in October 2014, Rocheford and colleagues from Purdue, Cornell, and Michigan State universities identified a few key genes that can increase ingredients in corn for building vitamin A in humans. And because these genes are already found in some corn varieties, new types of corn can be developed without transferring genes from other species. Rocheford’s lab works with the organization HarvestPlus that develops and promotes biofortified crops including carotenoid-boosted corn in developing regions.

A result of the lab’s research is a variety of corn with kernels deep orange in color. In 2015, Rocheford and his son Evan founded NutraMaize to commercialize carotenoid-fortified corn products in the U.S. “As the orange corn grew in popularity and demand overseas,” says Torbert Rocheford in a university statement, “I decided to grow some here and share it. The response was overwhelmingly positive. I had people tell me that the orange corn made the best grits and cornbread they had ever eaten.”

The commercialization process was helped along by a Small Business Technology Transfer award from National Science Foundation in 2017, with Evan Rocheford, NutraMaize’s CEO, as principal investigator. That $225,000 grant funded research and development of orange corn varieties with higher yields similar to those planted by American farmers. The research also aimed to develop varieties high in lutein and zeaxanthin, carotenoids associated with prevention of age-related macular degeneration.

NutraMaize sells its milled corn products, such as grits and polenta, directly to consumers under the brand-name Professor Torbert’s Orange Corn. In the following video, the Rochefords tell more about orange corn.

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