Daniel Gallie, professor of biochemistry at UC Riverside in the United States, has successfully doubled the protein content of corn grain, a discovery that could significantly add value to the crop and benefit corn producers.
It could also provide a cost-effective solution to tackling global hunger. Gallie is due to present his findings at a congressional seminar in Washington DC this week.
In the United States, the vast majority of corn - nearly 65 per cent - is used to feed animals for meat production. Much of the remainder is exported to other countries for feeding animals or made into corn sweeteners or fuel alcohol.
Corn, the most widely produced feed grain in the United States, accounts for more than 90 per cent of total value and production of feed grains in the country, with around 80 million acres of land planted with corn.
"Nearly 800 million people in the world suffer from protein-energy malnutrition, which is a leading cause of death in children in developing countries, many of which already produce corn as a major cereal crop," said Gallie.
"A significant fraction of the world's population, particularly in developing countries, has no access to meat as a protein source, and has to rely on plant sources such as grain. The new corn we have developed has two embryos in its kernel, which is what doubles the content of protein and oil and reduces the starch content.
"It could provide a good source of protein for those that depend on grain as their primary source of nutrients."
Every corn kernel results from a flower on an ear of corn, Gallie explained. Initially the ear produces a pair of flowers for every kernel. But then one of the sister flowers undergoes abortion, resulting in one flower for each kernel.
Gallie's research group has developed technology that essentially rescues the aborted flower, resulting in two kernels that are fused together.
"Despite the fusion, the kernels are not bigger," said Gallie. "It's basically the same corn, except that it is protein-rich and starch-poor - something that, if applied to sweet corn, would appeal to a large number of weight-conscious people in this country who are interested in low-carb diets and who normally avoid corn in their diets."
Gallie and his colleagues published their work last year in The Plant Journal. Though their research focused on feed corn, the technology can easily be applied to sweet corn, a sugar-rich mutant strain of regular corn.
The US department of agriculture, the National Science Foundation, and the California Agricultural Experiment Station funded the research.