A new North Carolina State University study under way at the Plants for Human Health Institute at the North Carolina Research Campus is focused on enhanced levels of lutein in broccoli.
Lutein, an antioxidant, is also found in leafy greens such as kale and spinach. Lutein is associated with lowering risks for cataracts and age-related macular degeneration.
Allan Brown, assistant professor with the Department of Horticultural Science and the Plants for Human Health Institute, recently received a $155,525 grant from the North Carolina Biotechnology Center for his broccoli research. A matching fund portion of the grant was funded by Monsanto Co.
Macular degeneration is the leading cause of vision loss and blindness among Americans who are age 65 and older. The condition affects around 10 percent of those 66 to 74 years old, and increases to 30 percent for those aged 75 to 85.
Because of the growing aging population, it is increasingly affecting a larger number of people.
Brown's plan is to develop plant material through hybridization with wild broccoli. He will then evaluate the new broccoli material to determine its stability and genetic potential for enhanced levels of lutein and beta-carotene.
His objective is to determine whether increased levels of these antioxidants will transfer to commercial production.
"We believe we have the potential to increase lutein levels in commercial broccoli twofold," Brown explained. "As part of our work, we expect to identify molecular markers that will significantly reduce the time and resources required to produce an enhanced broccoli."
A similar strategy by Monsanto, in conjunction with the John Innes Centre and the Institute of Food Research, both in the United Kingdom, led to the release of 'Beneforte' broccoli in 2010. This cultivar contains two to three times the compound known as sulforaphane. Researchers in the United Kingdom used conventional breeding methods.
Brown, who will also use conventional plant breeding methods, believes he can produce broccoli that is even more of a superfood than is now the case, with enhanced levels of compounds that fight cancer, heart disease and macular degeneration.
The project is expected to span two years and will include field trials in multiple locations in the state.
In addition to comparing high-lutein plants with currently available broccoli hybrids and studying how transferable the trait is, Brown will provide evaluations on the potential impact breeding would have on important quality traits such as head size, compactness, color, uniformity and harvest maturity of the product.
Broccoli is a $742 million a year industry in the U.S. Most of it gets shipped to North Carolina from the West Coast. Most broccoli in the U.S. is harvested from hybrid cultivars specifically developed for California production environments.