Thanks to work by USDA scientists, you may soon be able to forget taking a vitamin E pill and instead get it from a buttered ear of corn.

Edgar Cahoon, a biologist with the USDA-ARS Plant Genetics Research Unit, and his colleagues from DuPont Crop Genetics, have produced corn with six times the vitamin E content of regular corn.

“Most of the biotechnology we hear about has been directed toward reducing the farmer's input costs,” Cahoon says. “Our research, however, involves the development of a trait that improves the dietary quality of food.”

Vitamin E positively affects human health because it's a powerful antioxidant that protects cells from oxidation damage caused by “free radicals.” These radicals attack the cells' membranes, proteins and DNA, contributing to the development of health problems such as heart disease, diabetes, cataracts and cancer.

Although vitamin E corn does have other benefits, it was originally produced for a Pioneer Hi-Bred study aimed to improve the quality of corn for livestock feed applications. After studying how vitamin E is made in cereal grains such as barley, wheat and rice, researchers identified a key gene responsible for the production of the vitamin in barley seeds and introduced that gene into corn seeds.

“The combination of the gene and where it is expressed give the high level of this type of vitamin E,” says William Hitz, a research fellow with Pioneer Hi-Bred International, Inc., who was also involved in the project.

The corn must be tested extensively before it's available for consumers. Cahoon says it may be five to seven years before this product is available commercially.