Chuck Denney (UT Institute of Agriculture)
Baby sweet corn soaks up the hot sun. More weather like this - with some timely showers - and these plants will shoot up and produce tasty cobs. Note also what’s missing from this field - weeds. When these stalks were just inches high, they were sprayed with a herbicide called mesotrione. That same treatment was given to three varieties of corn that grew here last year, and what happened next was a surprise to UT AgResearchers.

Dr. Dean Kopsell (UT AgResearch)
“It’s kind of the old adage what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger. That’s actually what happened to the intermediate sensitive varieties we sprayed with mesotrione and compared to a control that was untreated and a check. The plants that were treated had higher carotenoid pools in their kernels, up to 15 to 16% higher.”

Chuck Denney
Higher levels of carotenoids means the corn was made more nutritious after the herbicide treatment. Dr. Dean Kopsell and Dr. Greg Armel with UT AgResearch are now documenting their findings in the field - and in the lab, where they study the behavior of herbicides and the development of nutrients in plants. There’s an added value to this. Dr. Kopsell says if you can boost carotenoid levels in sweet corn - and perhaps other vegetables as well - the added nutrients fight eye diseases such as macular degeneration, now affecting nearly two million elderly Americans.

Dr. Dean Kopsell
“As people age, they stop eating the fresh fruits and vegetables. They stop getting the carotenoids. They stop developing macular pigment and now you’re at-risk for those aging eye diseases like cataracts and macular degeneration.”

Chuck Denney
UT experts point out this is unbiased research. Other than critical information, they stand to gain nothing from the results one way or the other. And in fact - on this project - their findings turned out to be the exact opposite of what they expected.

Dr. Greg Armel (UT AgResearch)
“Our original hypotheses was we were going to damage the crop, that we were going to impact negatively the carotenoid levels and it just happened that we had the right timing, and the right application of the right rate that we saw the opposite effect.”

Chuck Denney
UT AgResearchers will also study other herbicides to see if they might enhance the development of nutrients in crops. Good Tennessee garden corn is already a nutritious food, and now a simple application to keep an area weed-free appears to make it even sweeter.


NOTE: UT scientists are also working with colleagues in Alabama, Virginia and Illinois in this research effort. They believe herbicides could also impact the nutritional value of other vegetables.