Efforts are underway for development of crops with improved levels of provitamin A carotenoids to help combat dietary vitamin A deficiency. As a global staple crop with considerable variation in kernel carotenoid composition, maize (Zea mays L.) could have a widespread impact. We performed a genome-wide association study (GWAS) of quantified seed carotenoids across a panel of maize inbreds ranging from light yellow to dark orange in grain color to identify some of the key genes controlling maize grain carotenoid composition. Significant associations at the genome-wide level were detected within the coding regions of zep1 and lut1, carotenoid biosynthetic genes not previously shown to impact grain carotenoid composition in association studies, as well as within previously associated lcyE and crtRB1 genes. We leveraged existing biochemical and genomic information to identify 58 a priori candidate genes relevant to the biosynthesis and retention of carotenoids in maize to test in a pathway-level analysis. This revealed dxs2 and lut5, genes not previously associated with kernel carotenoids. In genomic prediction models, use of markers that targeted a small set of quantitative trait loci associated with carotenoid levels in prior linkage studies were as effective as genome-wide markers for predicting carotenoid traits. Based on GWAS, pathway-level analysis, and genomic prediction studies, we outline a flexible strategy involving use of a small number of genes that can be selected for rapid conversion of elite white grain germplasm, with minimal amounts of carotenoids, to orange grain versions containing high levels of provitamin A.
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