The US Department of Agriculture's Agricultural Research Service (USDA ARS) is using cauliflower to identify genes and define molecular mechanisms that regulate nutrients in plant-based foods.
According to Li Li, a molecular biologist at the ARS Plant, Soil and Nutrition Laboratory (PSNL) in Ithaca, N.Y., a cauliflower gene - named 'Or' for the color orange - could induce high levels of beta-carotene into food crops.
The 'Or' gene, which Li and colleagues at Cornell University isolated last year, has been described as a semi-dominant gene mutation, and promotes high beta-carotene accumulation in various plant tissues that normally do not have carotenoids.
Carotenoids are fruit and vegetable compounds that the body converts into essential vitamins and uses as antioxidants beneficial to health. Beta-carotene, which gives orange carrots their color, is a carotenoid, and is converted in the body into vitamin A.
According to Li, the research may make a significant impact on vitamin A deficiency, which has been reported to affect some 250 million children worldwide.
"These studies can help researchers understand how carotenoid synthesis and accumulation are regulated in plants. This, in turn, can lead to strategies for increasing carotenoid content in food crops for improving human nutrition and health," said Li.
The Or gene originates from an orange cauliflower plant found in a Canadian field nearly 30 years ago. ARS and Cornell scientists in Ithaca have been studying its genetics for about eight years.
Li's current work, published in this month's issue of the ARS' Agricultural Research magazine and also partially detailed in the December issue of the publication Plant Cell, is part of a concentrated strategy at PSNL to apply genomics and related disciplines toward improving the nutritional quality and disease resistance of important food crops.