Can a gene from an orange cauliflower found three decades ago be the key to making food crops more nutritious?

Quite possibly, according to Agricultural Research Service scientist Li Li. She's using cauliflower to identify genes and define molecular mechanisms that regulate nutrients in plant-based foods.

Li, a molecular biologist at the ARS U.S. Plant, Soil and Nutrition Laboratory (PSNL) in Ithaca, N.Y., is making significant headway using this gene -- dubbed "Or" for the color orange -- to induce high levels of beta-carotene in food crops. She and colleagues at Cornell University isolated the gene last year.

The research may make a huge impact on vitamin A deficiency, which has been reported to affect some 250 million children worldwide, according to Li. That's because beta-carotene, which gives orange carrots their color, is a carotenoid -- one of the fruit-and-vegetable compounds that the body converts into essential vitamins and uses as antioxidants beneficial to health. Humans convert it into vitamin A.

Li added that, in cauliflower, Or -- which she described as a semi-dominant gene mutation -- promotes high beta-carotene accumulation in various plant tissues that normally don't have carotenoids. 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, she said.

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, which is 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.

Read more about the research in the January 2007 issue of Agricultural Research magazine.

SOURCE: USDA news release.