When the Growing Gets Tough, the Tough Get Growing

October 3, 2012 | Salute to Scholars, The University

Eleanore Wurtzel makes corn more nutritious

Vitamin A deficiency, a serious condition that can lead to malnourishment and death, affects 250 million children worldwide.

The deficiency is linked to diets lacking pro-vitamin A carotenoids — naturally occurring pigments that cause the red, orange and yellow color of fruits and vegetables.

Lehman College professor of biological sciences, Eleanore Wurtzel, has devoted the last 25 years to solving this global health problem by trying to develop new varieties of maize that are more nutritious — containing higher levels of vitamin A.

And she’s had a recent breakthrough.

Wurtzel’s team discovered that plant protein, called CruP, made lab plants more resilient to extreme conditions, including oxygen deficiency. Being able to grow plants that are more resistant to global-warming conditions means there will be more food available, she says.

“When you are trying to make plants more nutritious, it’s not just making plants contain more vitamin A,” says Wurtzel, whose research has been funded by the National Institutes of Health. “It also matters if they are capable of growing in less than perfect conditions. It’s important to develop plants that can handle stresses of climate change all over the world.”

The discovery was accidental. CruP was originally tested to aid beta-carotene production in plants, a nutrient that converts to Vitamin A. But during testing Louis Bradbury, a former postdoctoral student in Wurtzel’s lab, discovered clues that suggested CruP might possess qualities that would help plants endure global warming.

Bradbury and several other researchers worked on CruP for more than two years, while juggling other projects, until there was enough evidence to publish the results in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences in June. Wurtzel and her team have recently submitted a provisional patent for the discovery.

“I have to admit I was quite stubborn,” says Bradbury, who is now a post-doctoral research scientist at the University of Florida. “There were times when it looked like this project was going nowhere, but little pieces of evidence were nagging at me and I just couldn’t give up.”

Wurtzel and her team will test CruP’s resistance to extreme climate conditions on crops like corn and wheat, but the focus is still Vitamin A.

Bradbury says the discovery will most likely have the biggest impact on rice production, as it’s grown in areas that often get flooded. Flooding causes anoxic conditions, where plants are deprived of oxygen.

“Global warming is predicted to cause more severe weather events like flooding,” says Bradbury. “We found that CruP helps plants survive in anoxic environments so it should help crops recover better from floods. If the plants are healthier, then they will produce more better-quality food. Ultimately it could be the difference between plants living or dying after a flood.”