SWEET corn – it’s usually served with a Sunday roast – but a new variety of the grain is tipped to slow the onset of eye diseases.
Age-related macular degeneration is the leading cause of blindness in Australia and developed countries.
The world-first development is being spear-headed by Queensland Alliance for Agriculture and Food Innovation senior research fellow Dr Tim O’Hare.
Dr O’Hare, a post-harvest physiologist, said the gains made by the team have been monumental in terms of conventional breeding.
“Zeaxanthin is a pigment found in corn that is accumulated at the back of the eye and selectively taken up by the bloodstream,” he said.
“We cannot synthesise it through our diet and sweet corn is one of the best sources.
“Increased levels of zeaxanthin change the colour of corn, it becomes a deeper, golden-orange colour, hence the name SuperGold.”
Dr O’Hare said in order to get a supplementary dosage of zeaxanthin you would have to eat between four and 11 cobs of standard yellow sweet-corn per day.
The aim of the research was to find a way of increasing zeaxanthin levels by 700 percent so enough of the pigment would be accessible in one cob as part of a normal meal.
The project began in 2008 and Dr O’Hare said they went back to DAFF Queensland’s tropical breeding population of corn and looked at the existing variations.
The varieties selected for the new study were chosen based on their increased levels of zeaxanthin, kernel appearance, and eating quality.
“I knew about the link between zeaxanthin and macular degeneration, and we already had a sweet corn breeding program with DAFF, and then an opportunity came up – we haven’t looked back,” Dr O’Hare said.
“From there we combined varieties with different characteristics together – not only do you get more total pigment production, but more of the synthesis pathway is directed towards zeaxanthin.
“We have a good collaboration between DAFF and QAAFI scientists – it’s not just about breeding but also the chemistry and physiology of understanding the pathway.”
After countless hours of breeding, screening and the use of HPLC (high performance liquid chromatography) the 10 SuperGold varieties of sweet corn were developed.
Sweet corn producers in the Lockyer Valley and near Bowen, in North Queensland, could potentially be growing the variety in the next few years.
Producer Matt Hood said his family business Rugby Farm grows and harvests sweet corn every day of the year.
Rugby Farm is based in Gatton but has farming operations across the state.
Mr Hood said he was interested in the point of difference the SuperGold variety provides.
“We are major suppliers into Coles supermarkets,” he said.
“Our challenge and focus is to grow the category and provide consumers with more choice and health benefits.
“SuperGold has a point of difference from standard sweet corn, with its golden colour and nutritional values.”
Mr Hood said he hoped to gain access to SuperGold trial seed within the next year to see how it performed out in the paddock.
THE SuperGold sweet corn research gained international recognition at the Macular Carotenoids Conference, hosted by the University of Cambridge, in the UK.
“We presented our findings there and won the Howard Foundation bursary award for best abstract,” Dr O’Hare said.
The new varieties were developed as a result of research investment led by DAFF, QAAFI and Horticulture Australia.
Minister for Agriculture, Fisheries and Forestry John McVeigh said research and development was critical for biosecurity, pest and disease resistance, increasing crop yield and new market opportunities for Queensland producers.
“It’s this kind of smart science that makes DAFF a leader in horticulture research and development and will help us reach our goal of doubling the value if agriculture production in Queensland by 2040,” he said.