MSU lands $4.8 million NSF grant to improve corn

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Credit: MSU

EAST LANSING, Mich. – Michigan State University will use a $4.8 million National Science Foundation grant to increase corn productivity by better understanding how gene expression is controlled.

Corn, as simple as it looks, has a complex genome. When its genome was first mapped in 2009, scientists estimated it comprised 32,000 genes. In comparison, the human genome is made of an estimated 20,500 genes.

In 2016, the estimate of the corn genome increased to 40,000 genes; today it stands at 50,000. Despite corn's ever-growing molecular complexities, Erich Grotewold, chairperson of MSU's biochemistry and molecular biology department and the project's lead investigator, believes his integrative team can help decipher its genetic secrets.

"It won't be easy; it's like having all of the words of an encyclopedia set but no punctuation or spacing dividing them," he said. "The genetic and genomics resources available for this cereal provide an outstanding opportunity to understand how gene regulatory networks have evolved and how they can be further manipulated by breeding or genome engineering to boost productivity."

The team of scientists will primarily focus on the control of phenolics, compounds involved in protecting plants from pathogens and helping them adapt to other changes in environment, such as extreme weather. Lignin, part of the phenolics family and the second-most abundant polymer in the world, is responsible for making wood. Identifying how the accumulation of key phenolics is controlled, and later manipulating their formation, not only can improve corn production and nutritional value, but also will serve as models for other plants used for biofuels.

"It's comparable to looking at 50,000 doors, or genes, each having multiple locks," Grotewold said. "We have a bucket full of 3,000 keys, or regulators, to open those doors. Opening them means understanding control of the accumulation of these compounds, and in reality, any plant process."

Prior research has narrowed the bucket of keys to 50 prime candidates. As doors are unlocked and corn's secrets revealed, Grotewold's team will share the results via http://www.maizegdb.org and MSU's http://www.grassius.org, which are dedicated to publicizing research related to genetic advances involving agronomic traits.

In addition to sharing the research with scientists, Grotewold will use the project to entice more students from underrepresented groups to pursue advanced degrees in science. He and his wife, Andrea Doseff, MSU physiologist and co-investigator in this project, launched Success In Graduate Education program during their time at Ohio State University and brought the initiative to MSU.

"SiGuE is dedicated to increasing the representation and competitiveness of historically underrepresented groups in basic sciences," Grotewold said. "We've had early success with our efforts, placing four of our six former students at major universities; we're hoping to build on our efforts at MSU."

Scientists from the University of Toledo, University of Minnesota and University of Wisconsin are part of this research.

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