An international team of agricultural scientists has found a way to boost the nutritional value of corn and prevent blindness among children.

In Africa and other developing regions, corn is a major staple and hundreds of thousands of children become blind, develop weakened immune systems and die because of diets based largely on corn that lacks sufficient beta-carotene.

Corn contains carotenoids, some of which the body can convert to Vitamin A. Beta-carotene is the best Vitamin A precursor, but only a very small percentage of corn varieties have naturally high beta-carotene levels.

Marilyn Warburton and Edward Buckler, geneticists with the Agricultural Research Service (ARS) and colleagues identified genetic sequences linked to higher beta-carotene levels in corn, showing a cheaper and faster way to identify corn plants that will produce even higher levels.

The researchers surveyed the genetic sequences of corn from around the world through association mapping, a method made possible by recent breakthroughs that accelerate the genetic profiling of crops.

The genetic survey revealed natural variations in one gene sequence linked to higher beta-carotene levels, said an ARS release.

These variations interacted with a gene identified previously, and the best variations of the two genes together led to an 18-fold increase in beta-carotene, according to Warburton.

The report was recently published in Nature Genetics.