Sequencing of corn genome opens door

Now that scientists have completed the first comprehensive gene map of North American corn, the door is open to further technological advances in corn hybrids. 

Dr. Pat Schnable, director of the Center for Plant Genomics at Iowa State University, is one of the scientists involved in the corn genome project. “This is a fabulous start of telling us how the corn plant grows and develops,” says Schnable, “but now we need to link it to functional information.  How do all of those genes—those applications—interact to make the plant grow and develop?”

Schnable says seed companies have been accessing information from the corn genome project over the past four years.  He says it won’t be long before it starts paying dividends.

“I am convinced that the hybrids that are coming out in the next several years will have benefitted from the genome sequence,” he says. “Some of the possibilities for drought tolerance and increased nitrogen use efficiency, I think we’ll start seeing news of those in the next five years, say.”

Schnable says he is particularly interested in heterosis—or hybrid vigor—and gaining a better understanding of how it works. “This was described 100 years ago—1908—and hybrids began to come onto the market in the 1930’s, and they’re widely used these days,” Schnable explains. “but we don’t understand how heterosis works—and if we could understand how it works, we’ll be able to better predict which inbreds to cross together to make the next generation of superior hybrids.”

The National Corn Growers Association (NCGA) calls completion of the corn genome sequencing “a milestone” for U.S. corn farmers.  NCGA says the data will expedite breeding programs and increase knowledge of corn’s important agronomic traits.  It says information encoded in the corn genome can help scientists improve water and nitrogen use efficiencies, and help plants cope with disease, pests and adverse weather.  By decreasing the inputs needed and increasing yields, NCGA says, these traits will also allow corn to become an even more sustainable crop.

 AUDIO: Dr. Pat Schnable (7 min MP3)

Link to National Science Foundation news release

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