Jinsheng Lai, research associate at Rutgers' Waksman Institute of Microbiology, and Joachim Messing, professor and director of the institute, presented their findings in the current issue of The Plant Journal (volume 30, number 4, May 2002). In the course of their work, the Waksman scientists employed technical expertise that few other academic laboratories possess.
Lai and Messing increased the level of the corn's amino acid methionine, a common building block of protein, but one that the body cannot manufacture by itself. "Since our own body cannot synthesize certain amino acids such as methionine, we need to take it in through food. If we don't," said Messing, "then we die."
In an overly protein-rich diet such as most Americans consume, this is not a problem. "However, for the poor kids in Bolivia and elsewhere, steak and chicken are rarely on the table," Messing continued. "Their dietary staple is corn and little else. With our discovery, there is now an opportunity for them to get the protein necessary to ensure their health."
Messing explained that the researchers enabled the corn to make more of its own methionine by first isolating the gene for methionine and then adjusting the signaling sequences that flank it. "It still makes the same protein as before, but we changed the dials left and right of it a little bit, turning them up to increase the amount of protein made," he said. Messing stressed that this is not the same as producing a genetically modified organism or GMO, in which scientists insert a gene that is not native to the plant. A patent is currently pending on the new corn.
The first test application of the methionine-enhanced corn was in chicken feed. Formulation for chicken feed is very expensive, employing corn, soybean and synthetic methionine. The new corn successfully replaced the synthetic additive and resulted in normal healthy chickens. Messing contends that in addition to the nutritional benefits to corn-dependent Third World diets, the poultry industry could see an annual cost saving of about a billion dollars if it eliminates synthetic additives from chicken feed.
"Over and above the improvement of people's diets, there are benefits to using a protein that the organism naturally makes," stated Messing. "People have already been eating it for years, and they already know it is safe."