|Monday, July 19th 2004|
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Low-carb, high-protein diets are so popular that 32 million Americans said they were on a low-carb diet last year, according to a Harris Interactive poll. Now, genetic engineers are finding ways to make low-carb, high-protein foods.
Daniel Gallie, a biochemist at the University of California Riverside has done that with corn. It started when Gallie experimented with the pairs of tiny flowers that turn into corn kernels. Normally, one of the flowers in a pair dies, and one kernel develops. But Gallie inserted a gene into the corn that saved the second flower from dying.
"What we've done is instruct corn to produce a normal plant hormone called cytokinin in the flower that dies," he explains. "And what this hormone did was cause the flower that normally dies to survive. So therefore both flowers in a pair survived. We had predicted that the production of this plant hormone cytokinin would cause both flowers to survive and that each flower would produce a separate kernel. But we were surprised because both flowers did indeed produce a kernel but they fused into a single kernel. This had never occurred before in corn."
This kernel contained two embryos—the part of the kernel that grows into a new plant if planted in the ground. "The embryo contains most of the protein and oil in the kernel," says Gallie. "So kernels that contained two embryos have more protein than normal corn. The presence of two embryos in a normal-sized kernel meant that something had to give, and that was the part of the kernel that contains most of the starch or carbohydrates. So what we've produced then is corn with more protein and reduced carbohydrate."
Many potential applications, but can it thrive?
Gallie's corn could mean more than just supermarket shelves filled with low-carb corn chips; its double dose of protein could have repercussions throughout the world. According to the World Health Organization, protein-energy malnutrition (PEM), the most lethal form of malnutrition, affects every fourth child worldwide.
"The World Health Organization estimates that 800 million people worldwide suffer from malnutrition, of which insufficient protein in the diet is a significant contributing factor," says Gallie. "So our corn, with increased protein, should address this problem. Our ultimate goal then is to generate corn in which people, particularly in third world countries, can have higher quality protein."
Gallie's corn also had twice as much corn oil, which would be a boon to the food industry; approximately 60 percent of all corn grown in the U.S. is fed to domestic livestock in the form of ground grain, silage, high-oil and high-moisture corn.
Biotech companies have approached Gallie about developing his corn, but he points out that it will take years to determine if the corn is suitable for mass production. "One of the issues is that since each kernel contains two embryos, that means two plants will grow from each kernel," he says. "Now, two plants growing from the same kernel or seed is usually not a good thing for plants because they're competing for nutrients and resources. So one of the things that will need to be tested in the field is how well can these plants grow and perform in the field when they are competing for resources."
Besides low-carb corn, Gallie has also worked on corn that is drought resistant, and corn that is high in vitamin C. He hopes next to be able to combine all these features into one "super" corn. This research was published in the June, 2004 issue of The Plant Journal and was also featured in the August, 2004 issue of Discover Magazine. It was funded by the National Science Foundation, the U.S. Department of Agriculture, and the University of California Agricultural Experiment Station.
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Carbohydrates per Serving : 1.02 - Carbohydrates per Serving minus Fiber: 1.02
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