Background: One of the goals of plant breeding is to create crops to provide better nutrition for humans and livestock. Insufficient intake of protein is one of the most severe factors affecting the growth and development of children in developing countries. More than a century ago, in 1896, Hopkins initiated the well-known Illinois long-term selection for maize seed protein concentration, yielding four protein strains. By continuously accumulating QTLs, Illinois High Protein (IHP) reached a protein level 2.5-fold higher than normal maize, with the most increased fraction being the zein protein, which was shown to contain no lysine soon after the long-term selection program initiated. Therefore, IHP is of little value for feeding humans and monogastric animals. Although high-lysine lines of non-vitreous mutants were based on reduced zeins, the kernel soft texture precluded their practical use. Kernel hardness in opaque 2 (o2) could be restored in quality protein maize (QPM) with quantitative trait loci called o2 modifiers (Mo2s), but those did not increase total protein levels.
Methods: The most predominant zeins are the 22- and 19-kDa α-zeins. To achieve a combination of desired traits, we used RNA interference (RNAi) against both α-zeins in IHP and evaluated the silencing effect by SDS-PAGE. Total protein, amino acid composition and kernel texture were analyzed.
Conclusions: The α-zeins were dramatically reduced, but the high total seed protein level remained unchanged by complementary increase of non-zein proteins. Moreover, the residual zein levels still allowed for a vitreous hard seed. Such dramatic rebalancing of the nitrogen sink could have a major impact in world food supply.