Bioscience

Arizona scientists unlock secrets that could lead to better corn

July 8, 2008

By Flinn Foundation

[Source: Phoenix Business Journal, Ashley Macha] – Unlocking the genetic secrets of crops — corn specifically — could help with increasing energy needs in the United States. And the key to that lock couldn’t have come at a better time, with gas prices at an all-time high.

A team of university and private laboratory researchers from the University of Arizona, Washington State University and Iowa State University have designed a draft genome sequence for corn, funded by a $29.5 million grant by the National Science Foundation, United States Department of Agriculture and the Department of Energy.

Rod Wing, professor and director of the University of Arizona’s Genomics Institute and a member of the BIO5 Institute at UA, was in charge of leading the development of the genome’s physical map. The genome, B73, a variety of corn, or maize, was developed at Iowa State University several decades ago.

Wing’s team decifered nearly 19,000 pieces of genetic material and placed them in a systematic order.

“It is like a tool or like a dictionary,” Wing said. “Every chapter is a chromosome and then you know where all the genes are. It is the foundation for any detailed study of an organism.”

The sequence of corn should provide more information about other cereal plants, including rice, another plant that Wing played a major part in decoding.

The genetic mapping of corn can allow scientists to isolate corn genes and test them to learn what specific traits each has, such as being drought or disease tolerant.
The strains, if needed, can then be manipulated to need less water for survival — good for dry environments such as Arizona.

“We can learn more about drought and maybe if it is possible to grow corn or other plants in conditions that require less water,” Wing said.

The research also should allow scientists to develop strains with higher yields to help feed a growing population, Wing said. “It will also have an impact on the biofuel industry.”

Corn is used for food, animal feed, sweetner and fuel. Ethanol has shown to be a significant market for U.S. corn, consuming more than 2.3 billion bushels in 2007 to produce 6.5 million gallons of renewable fuel, according to the National Corn Growers Association.

“The number of different genes may be able to be manipulated in particular pathways to help in terms of energy research,” said Vicki Chandler, maize researcher and director of the BIO5 Institute at UA.

Ethanol, unlike gasoline, is nontoxic and biodegradeable and allows engines to run without the need for lead or other additives.

“It (the sequence) could help increase starch — which people want — and can be converted to ethanol,” Wing said.

Using ethanol enables producers to use less oil to make gasoline.

“The genome projects are key for a lot of fundamental research that have applications in human health, energy and agriculture,” Chandler said.

The draft of the sequence information for maize is available to the public on a free online database called GenBank, and also at maizesequence.org.

The sequence is expected to be finished in November.