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How a Cornfield in the Bronx Is Alleviating Childhood Blindness

Professor Eleanore T. Wurtzel cultivates corn in a field in the Bronx.

The news from the United Nations about biodiversity is grim. A new 1,500-page report offers evidence that up to a million plant and animal species are at risk of extinction, threatening ecosystems and human survival. Agriculture is one of the culprits, along with climate change, fishing, hunting, logging, poaching, and mining.

So, how do we safely sustain more than 7 billion people if current farming practices are jeopardizing the planet? It’s a conundrum that researchers like Graduate Center Professor Eleanore T. Wurtzel (GC/Lehman, Biology) are working to address, and according Wurtzel, one bright area is genetic engineering.

Yes, she means the process that produces genetically modified organisms, or GMOs, which have drawn consumer skepticism, even activism, in recent years.

In a timely talk last week at The Graduate Center, Wurtzel offered evidence for ways that she and colleagues in her lab are using biotechnology and molecular biology to address the vitamin A deficiency that affects about 250 million children around the world, threatening blindness and early death.

“It’s a serious problem easily solved by providing sustainable solutions for food,” she said.

Specifically, Wurtzel and fellow researchers in her lab — Graduate Center doctoral students, CUNY undergraduate and graduate students, postdocs, and visiting scientists — have isolated genes in staple crops, such as corn and rice, that produce beta carotene, the nutrient that our bodies break down into vitamin A.

In a 5,000-square-foot corn field in the Bronx, Wurtzel and her collaborators grow different types of corn.

Through genetic and molecular comparisons, they have determined which varieties of corn produce the most beta carotene and which genes are responsible for the process. With this information, they can target the controls that “turn on” these genes and boost beta carotene production.

The maize findings were published a few years ago in Science and other leading journals, and Wurtzel and her doctoral and post-doctoral students have secured patents on the technology developed in the lab.

Corn is a staple crop in Africa, and Wurtzel said, “There is now corn for Africa that is enriched in beta carotene,” thanks to her lab.

Research from Wurtzel's lab has also facilitated the development of transgenic rice for Asia and carotene-enriched cassava for Latin America.

Wurtzel’s response to fears about genetically modifying crops? “People just don’t understand how it works and are fearful of new ways of doing things. GMO is a more specific way of accomplishing breeding.”
Although Wurtzel has received millions of dollars in funding from the National Science Foundation, the National Institutes of Health, the American Cancer Society, and a host of other agencies and organizations, she commented that, overall, “getting funding for plant biology is really hard.”

“People don’t think about plants as being important,” she said, adding, but “we’re just missing opportunities. There are species yet to be discovered. And we have ways now with new technology to improve our plants for food.”

Submitted on: MAY 9, 2019

Category: Biology | Faculty | General GC News