Yet out of that failure has come genetic research that is helping develop corn hybrids with higher levels of vitamin A, which could greatly help nutrition in developing nations.
The potential of the vitamin-enriched corn has attracted attention from the U.S. Agency for International Development, which recently provided a $1.7 million grant to Illinois and six other institutions to develop hybrids that can be grown in sub-Saharan Africa.
"We brought something to higher levels," said Torbert Rocheford, the crop sciences professor whose color experiment failed. "We have some things to work with that we would not have had otherwise."
The Illinois research will become part of a program called HarvestPlus, which has a goal of providing $95 million over the next decade to help breed crops to improve nutrition around the world, said Howarth Bouis, the organization's director.
The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation contributed $25 million last week toward HarvestPlus' effort. Additional money is likely to come from the Agency for International Development, the World Bank and other sources, Bouis said.
Rocheford's genetic research began in fun in the mid-1990s — to see if kernels of orange corn and blue corn would grow on the same ear. But what came up didn't do anything for school spirit, Rocheford said.
"It was hideously ugly green. So I just threw it away," he said.
However, Rocheford, working with now-retired professor Robert Lambert, decided to work on breeding ears with kernels that were a richer orange or a deeper blue.
The result was an intensely orange corn with very high levels of beta carotene, which the human body converts to vitamin A, Rocheford said. Scientists are crossing those varieties with others to develop high-vitamin A corn that will grow in places such as Nigeria or Zimbabwe.
The idea, called "biofortifying," is for people to get better nutrition from their staple diets, Bouis said.
"We're using maize as the vehicle to deliver the vitamins," he said. "We're getting the plants to fortify themselves by breeding plants with high vitamin A."
Most African people are used to eating white corn, so there will be some cultural change as researchers try to convince people of the health benefit of orange corn, Bouis said. Nutritionists will test the research with feeding trials beginning early next year in Nigeria.
About 500 million vitamin and mineral pills are distributed each year to help improve nutrition in developing nations, Bouis said. Biofortifying could eliminate that dependence and its $125 million annual expense.
"With plant breeding, you invest a smaller amount of money up front, and then you can stop spending money because those (crops) are always available," he said.
Rocheford said he wasn't too upset when his orange-and-blue corn experiment went awry. He just used what he learned from it to take his research another step, he said.
That's not unusual, said Steve Pueppke, associate dean in the College of Agriculture, Consumer and Environmental Sciences. Researchers are encouraged to play, he said.
"We're looking for people who have the capacity to do these things," he said. "All sorts of interesting things can happen. This is just a wonderful example of that."
By Jim Paul
By Jim Paul