Eliot Herman and a team of researchers spent 10 years breeding a soybean that could prevent allergic reactions to the soy-based ingredients in baby food.

It is, basically, the same soybean he created more than 10 years ago in the lab. The main difference is that this one isn’t “GMO” — and therefore will be easier to bring to market.

The research team, which includes Herman’s wife, Monica Schmidt, has bred in a couple of other traits that make this soybean more nutritious and more easily digestible, potentially making it valuable as an organic feed source for fish and other animals.

Sometimes, said Herman, science needs to to accommodate “perception and public policy” to accomplish its goals.

It’s one way to counter a rising public fear about the safety of GMO foods. It’s an unnecessary step, scientifically, said Herman, but it avoids a lot of hurdles.

Herman and Schmidt, who joined the Bio5 Research Institute at the University of Arizona three years ago, published their results this month in the journal Plant Breeding. Herman is a professor and Schmidt, an assistant professor, in the UA School of Plant Sciences.

In another study published this month in the Plant Biotechnology Journal, a team led by Schmidt and including Herman announced a genetically modified result — a soybean fortified with carotene. It could be used to attack vitamin A deficiency and childhood blindness in developing countries.

Schmidt said that result — an orange soybean with 20 times the carotene of any crop produced so far — would be impossible to accomplish with traditional crop-breeding methods.

She said she and Herman are willing to use whatever strategies work to improve crops, but that many crops have been “maxed out” on their natural abilities.

“I just want my products out. I want to make an impact. If I can do it with conventional breeding I’ll do that. I’m not really an advocate of one way or the other. I just want to solve the problems.”

THE DISCOVERY

Herman discovered the gene responsible for the protein in soybeans that causes allergic reaction “accidentally” 20 years ago, when he worked for the U.S. Department of Agriculture, he said.

It was hailed as a breakthrough when he knocked out the gene in the lab and published his results more than 10 years ago. The USDA gave him the 2004 Plow Award, the agency’s top annual award for plant research.

“The project was successful,” said Herman. “We knocked the protein out. There was a lot of publicity. I got an award. It was certainly great for my career. Useful? No.”

Soybeans, along with foods like peanuts that are known allergens, are regulated by the Food and Drug Administration. “It takes tens, if not hundreds of millions, of dollars to deregulate something,” Herman said.

He said he also faced “the barrage of anti-biotech publicity out there” and the ingrained protective nature of mothers.

A major food manufacturer would have to lead the charge — and baby-food makers weren’t about to do that, said Schmidt. “Gerber would have been a target, but that was the first company to ban any GMO products in food,” she said.

Herman teamed up with University of Illinois researcher Theodore Hymowitz, who maintained a seed bank of 16,000 domesticated strains of soybean. They went looking for a mutant strain that did not contain the allele that made the plant allergic.

“Unlike Monsanto, which has robots to do this, I had undergraduates with razor blades,” said Herman.

They eventually found a mutation that worked in “a very old germplasm collected in Manchuria in the 1880s.”

Herman said Hymowitz had already isolated two other genes that make soy hard to digest and limit its nutritional value. They decided to breed those traits out as well.

The result, a “triple null” variety of soy, could have a variety of uses, in addition to a medicinal supplement he hopes to make available for the 6 percent of infants who can’t tolerate soy.

Now he is collaborating with researchers at Purdue University to test the new soy variety on infant pigs that are bred to be sensitive to soy.

NEXT STEPS

If all goes well, Herman and Schmidt believe Triple Null has potential as animal feed, particularly in the growing aquaculture sector, where feeding fish meal to salmon and other farm-raised fish has become unsustainable. “There are only so many little fishes in the ocean,” said Schmidt.

Substituting a non-GMO soy feed could be attractive to that industry, she said. “The Europeans, especially, are very sensitive about transgenics. They could have an organic feed.”

Greg Jaffe, the biotechnology project director for the Center for Science in the Public Interest, said there should be no reason to traditionally breed a crop that has been successfully made through genetic manipulation.

“There is no question that some things that are produced through genetic engineering can also be produced conventionally, but they are not likely to have any differences in their nutrition, or their usefulness, or their safety.”

The center’s position is that federal regulators need to treat all new crops the same, regardless of how they are produced, to ensure the safety of the food supply, Jaffe said.

“All foods have things in them that may be harmful to us. There are many natural foods that have things in them that are harmful. We favor a mandatory pre-market approval process at FDA to determine the safety of the crop before it is marketed.”

Jaffe said he is convinced that GMO foods on the market now are safe and said there is “international consensus” on that point.

GMO RESEARCH FUNDING SCARE

GMOs are omnipresent in prepared foods, primarily because most of the soy and corn grown in the United States has been genetically engineered to repel pests and/or be resistant to herbicides.

Emulsifiers such as soy lecithin and sweeteners such as fructose from corn syrup come mainly from those crops.

Those traits are beneficial to the food producers, said Schmidt. She said she works on traits that will be beneficial to consumers.

In addition to vitamin A-fortified soybeans, their lab is working on moving carotene into chickpeas and pigeon peas for the Indian and African markets.

After her father developed macular degeneration and was told to take supplements of zeaxanthin and lutene, she set out to discover how to place small amounts of those antioxidants in the food supply to ward off eye problems as we age.

She is also working, with funding from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, to create a corn variety resistant to the fungus that produces aflatoxin — which is suspected of causing high rates of liver cancer and other ailments in African countries.

Foundation money has become essential, she said, with food producers wary of funding research on GMO products.

That’s why her paper on carotene-enhanced soy does not list funding sources. “It was funded by nobody — absolutely nobody,” she said.

“A lot of research we do kind of in our our spare time on the back burner. We do things because we believe in it and want to do it.”

Contact reporter Tom Beal at tbeal@tucson.com or 573-4158.