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CSREES Funds Research Examining the Genetics Behind the Formation of Maize

Contact:
Jennifer Martin, CSREES Staff, (202) 720-8188

WASHINGTON, May 11, 2006 - Researchers at Cold Springs Harbor Laboratory in New York are navigating their way through the genetic map of maize to determine the exact genes responsible for how an ear of corn forms. The impact of this research will not only affect your dinner plate, but also your pocket book.

The USDA’s Cooperative State Research, Education and Extension Service funded this research through its National Research Initiative Developmental Processes of Agricultural Plants Program. The results of this research are presented in an article entitled, ‘A trehalose metabolic enzyme controls inflorescence architecture in maize’ featured in the May 11th edition of the journal Nature.

Namiko Satoh and colleagues identified specific genes that regulate the crop potential of maize. An ear of corn, or inflorescence, produces seeds and is therefore extremely important in determining crop yield. The number of seeds produced by a maize plant is based on the architecture of the inflorescence. Historically, plant breeders selected plants that produced long inflorescences structures, which contained a greater number of seeds. Therefore, plant yield increased, but until recently the genetic basis of inflorescence development has been obscure.

Satoh, working with colleagues from Dupont, identified the molecular sequence of RAMOSA3 (RA3), a gene critical in the regulation of maize inflorescence architecture. Sequencing of the RA3 gene showed that it contains an enzyme, trehalose phosphate phosphatase. This enzyme is involved in the production of trehalose, a compound of two simple sugars that is found throughout the plant kingdom. The work suggests this simple sugar may act as a developmental signal to regulate the inflorescence architecture critical for crop yields.

Satoh and colleagues from the University of Missouri, St Louis, and the California State University, Long Beach found that RA3 is conserved in other cereal crops, specifically rice varieties, suggesting it may play a role in controlling inflorescence development of other plants as well. Understanding the role of RA3 and other genes that regulate inflorescence development in grain crops may ultimately aid in breeding higher yielding crop plants.

The implications of this research on corn production are numerous. Corn plays an integral part of daily life. It is a staple in food products for humans and animals and for producing resins for biodegradable plastics. Corn is also the primary feedstock for the production of ethanol. And as Americans’ wallets are being squeezed at the gas pump, corn-based ethanol may provide the desperately needed gasoline alternative to reduce dependence on fossil fuels.

CSREES advances knowledge for agriculture, the environment, human health and well-being, and communities by supporting research, education, and extension programs in the Land-Grant University System and other partner organizations. For more information, visit http://www.csrees.usda.gov.

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