Professor Eleanore T. Wurtzel Contributes to Research with Global Health Significance

Eleanore T. WurtzelProfessor Eleanore T. Wurtzel (Biological Sciences) is part of a team of researchers, working in seven laboratories in the U.S. and Mexico, that has developed tools for breeding new lines of maize rich in provitamin A—a finding that could greatly reduce malnutrition around the world. Their research was published on Jan. 18, 2008 in the prestigious journal Science under the title "Natural Genetic Variation in Lycopene Epsilon Cyclase Can Enhance Provitamin A Biofortification of Maize."
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Each year, Vitamin A deficiency is the cause of eye disease in approximately 40 million children and places hundreds of millions at risk for other health disorders. Maize is the most common crop grown in much of sub-Saharan Africa and the Americas, where substantial numbers of children are deficient in vitamin A. Plant breeders currently use visual markers to select and produce the most nutritious crops possible. As a result of this research, breeders now will be able to develop breeding programs using DNA-based indicators. These indicators will track plants that carry a genotype needed to produce the highest levels of provitamin A.

The research, Dr. Wurtzel noted, capitalizes on new knowledge about how plant genes impact nutritional traits. “This discovery,” she said, “came about through molecular analysis of maize from around the world. Breeders will be able to develop new lines of maize by using the DNA diversity that already exists in these collections.”

Dr Wurtzel's work in the project focused on identifying critical enzymes in the biosynthetic pathway that help to accumulate carotenoids. Carotenoids are nutritionally important compounds that are manufactured in plants and needed by humans for development and as a source of vitamin A. Dr. Wurtzel’s laboratory investigates gene regulation in crop plants to understand how carotenoid content and composition are controlled.

“It was through this multi-institutional collaboration,” Dr. Wurtzel added, “that such basic research could be translated to develop useful tools for plant breeders.”

In addition to Dr. Wurtzel, who is also on the faculty of the CUNY Graduate Center, contributors include researchers from Cornell University, the University of Illinois, the Boyce Thompson Institute, the University of North Carolina, the U.S. Department of Agriculture, the International Maize and Wheat Improvement Center (CIMMYT) in Mexico, and DuPont Crop Genetics Research. Dr Wurtzel’s lab, the only one based in New York City, is located at Lehman College, which houses the CUNY doctoral program in plant sciences.

To find out more about Dr. Wurtzel's research, visit her website, or contact her at (718-960-8643).