Lying on the table are ears of bright orange corn. At first you think you're looking at popcorn, but that's not the case. It's regular corn, but not yellow. There is a distinctive orange hue to this corn, as orange as an orange itself.
The color is not there by accident. Purdue corn breeders Torbert Rocheford and Mitch Tunistra are experimenting with how to produce the orange corn as part of their breeding program work.
It's not just a novelty item, Rocheford insists. Instead, the corn is orange because it contains carotene-like compounds, like those found in carrots. That means it's a good source of vitamin A. It would be good therapy for someone prone to macular degeneration of the eyes. That's why the old saying 'carrots are good for the eyes' is actually rooted in truth.
What the breeders are more interested in, however, is that the corn could provide Vitamin A in third world countries to thousands of children who literally die from lack of vitamin A nutrition. Many of their diets simply don't include a good source of vitamin A, to the point that it can become a serious issue. If their food was made from corn that contained more vitamin A instead or regular corn, Rocheford believes most of their dietary needs for this vitamin could be met, and a large number of deaths amongst children in third world counties could be avoided.
As it turns out, the breeder says there is a whole spectrum of kernels of corn, and they rate them on a scale on 1 to 10 with 10 being very orange. By selecting for the genetic traits that control the orange color, they can produce orange corn.
The corn is not ready to head to the field yet. Right now the orange ears of corn make an interesting display which prompt lots of questions when set up outside of their offices. But inside the lab graduate students, plus the breeders, work on the details that could determine if it would be feasible to incorporate this trait into commercial corn hybrids at some point in the future.