Biochemist Daniel Gallie and his research team at the University of California, Riverside, focused on the plant hormone, cytokinin, that plays a role in preventing organ death. Flowers in the corn ear develop in pairs but one from each pair aborts before pollination can occur. The research team introduced a gene that enabled production of cytokinin in developing flowers.
"Because it is the embryo that contains the majority of protein and oil, the presence of two embryos doubles their content in corn grain. The reduction in the size of the endosperm in the kernel, the tissue that contains most of the carbohydrate, means that the nutritional value of the grain has been improved considerably," said Gallie.
"Surprisingly, not only did we observe rescue of flower abortion but the kernels produced from pairs of flowers fused into a single normal-sized kernel that contained two embryos and a smaller endosperm," he added.
In the food industries, corn starch is used primarily as a thickener or binder in many processed foods, and is also sold to packers for consumer consumption. Sweeteners, also derived from corn, are used extensively for sports drinks in the maltodextrin form.
"Our findings are important to the field of flower development in corn in that they suggest that the level of cytokinin may determine whether abortion occurs and this knowledge can be used to engineer grain to improve its nutrient and economic value," said Gallie.
In 2003 droughts in the US - the world's biggest producer of corn that supplies 250 million tonnes a year -cut corn harvests, impacting global stocks and helping to send them to 20 year lows.
With a slump in supplies came rising prices that have since cut into margins for ingredients firms and processors working with the raw material.
Plantings in the mid-West of the US are happening now and the industry will be closely watching the weather conditions as the crops grow. But this recent study from Gallie and colleagues that effectively doubles the protein and oil content while cutting the carbs could translate into future savings and less price risk for raw material supplies.