Nebraska researchers using sorghum heat-resistance traits and modifying them for corn

Researchers with the University of Nebraska-Lincoln are using sorghum’s heat-resistance genes to boost corn’s drought tolerance through genetic modification.

Ed Cahoon, director of the Center for Plant Science Innovation, says their research determined sorghum as gene that activates the production of wax that’s a barrier to water loss. “As we look at latter stages of growth, sorghum has a type of wax that’s quite abundant that has a steroidal-type structure.  It’s missing in corn and this type of wax is known to occur in some type of desert plants.”

Cahoon says the genetics of the two crops are closely related and that corn has the same mutated-wax gene sorghum has but activating it is the challenge. “It’s telling us that maybe we can take the gene from sorghum or modify the gene in corn to make it functional that maybe we can restore this type of wax production in corn and make it a better type of wax to hold in water.”

He says it’s a slow process but through genetic modification, his team hopes to make corn more resilient to drought and other environmental stresses. “It’s pretty standard technology and it does take some time. If we can actually do this, we’ll take it out to the field and see whether this will make a new type of wax and see if it does have any impact on the corn plant.”

The Cahoon lab is also exploring the potential to divert a portion of sorghum’s high wax content to produce high-value oils as co-products in bioenergy sorghum.

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