AFRI in ACTION: Developing Better Corn

Click Here for Print Version   

Developing Better CornCorn is king in the United States, accounting for over $60 billion in annual sales. However, out of hundreds of races of maize, only a handful were used to develop and enrich the corn we plant today. The result is a crop system that may be more vulnerable to epidemics and less capable of further improvement. Dr. Randall Wisser at the University of Delaware and six other investigators are helping prepare farmers for the future by exploring new sources of genetic diversity and their potential for increasing production. Through a five-year grant from USDA’s Agriculture and Food Research Initiative (AFRI), Dr. Wisser teamed up with researchers from universities in Wisconsin, Iowa, Missouri, North Carolina, and Texas. Together, they are combining genome science with field studies of tropical corn varieties and breaking new ground on the genetic barriers that hinder crop adaptation in the United States. The researchers are employing the same process of selective breeding that has been used by farmers for centuries. But now, it’s powered by real-time information about the genome. The team is searching for signatures in the genome that influence a crop’s ability to adapt to different environments and determining if there is a common thread. Underlying the process of selective breeding, however, is not one gene but a web of genes that control different traits. In the pursuit of developing one trait you may lose another. For instance, in Dr. Wisser’s research, selecting against late flowering time (essential for adaptation to the U.S. growing season) may simultaneously result in the loss of valuable genetic diversity from a population. At the heart of Dr. Wisser’s work is the challenge of understanding and surmounting these barriers to adaptation while extracting the hidden gems carried within unique genomes.

“We’re creating more than a system for identifying the best possible traits from other corn varieties. Our work through AFRI has allowed us to develop approaches that can be applied to a wide range of crops.” – Dr. Randall Wisser

While the research team’s current work examines the web of genes that impede adaptation, additional support would allow them to conduct a deeper study of how the gene web is structured in order to create beneficial traits and shed light on the adaptability of a crop. This new dimension would give the researchers yet another tool for unlocking the incredible potential of new corn varieties.

Photo: Dr. Randall Wisser in a maize field study location. (University of Delaware)