Engineering Corn Stalks to See the Light

2whiteboard0814If you’ve ever owned a plant for even just a couple of months before killing it with your brown thumb, you’re quite aware that they can sense light. I, in fact, have a two-year-old table plant (don’t ask me what kind, I have no idea) that has climbed out of its basket and started growing toward the window. Why? Because that’s where the light is, and light brings life.

In general, plants will always grow toward the light, especially if they’re not currently getting enough. This is a good thing, because it keeps our forests and ecosystems thriving. It is not a good thing, however, for farms.

Corn grows tall. Really tall. Corn also needs light. A lot of light. So if you have a lot of really tall corn really close to one another, guess what it’s going to do? Outgrow all of its buddies so that it can get more light.

That’s not really a problem, especially for those of us who love a good corn maze. Except, of course, for the fact that a plant has limited energy. And if it’s spending all of that juice trying to outgrow the other little corn stalks, it’s not using any of it toward making us food. This limits the amount of corn stalks that you can jam into a patch of land. Not just corn, either. Lots of food crops have this issue.

There may be a solution, however, brewing at the University of Wisconsin. Researchers there have sequenced the genes in corn responsible for building a light-sensing molecule called phytochrome. Sure, it has a lot of other jobs too, as does most things in a living organism, but researchers are only interested in its ability to sense light.

If they can find a mutant version that is much more sensitive to light but no different in any other way, perhaps they can trick the corn stalks into thinking they’re getting more light then  they are, allowing farmers to plant them closer together without sacrificing the growth of any ears.

They’re hot on the trail, too. A few of the engineered mutants already show an increased light sensitivity. The next step is inserting the newly altered genes into the genome of a lot of seeds and see if any of them pan out.

The only other question, then, is will it make any difference?

Even if the researchers are successful, will anybody even benefit? After all, even though all they did was identify a useful mutant and ensure its genetic alteration spreads to an entire generation of corn, it’s still technically genetic engineering.

And we all know how people feel about genetically engineered crops.

Never mind that humans have been selecting for characteristics and slowly altering the natural course of countless species’ genetic developments for thousands of years. If we can do the same thing in 10, apparently its unnatural.

So either people will accept a small bit of help from science or they’ll lose out on a potential 50 percent boost in crop yields without a single square foot’s increase in farmland.

I’m betting on the latter.

The paper, “Structure-guided engineering of plant phytochrome B with altered photochemistry and light signaling” was published in the journal Plant Physiology by Richard Vierstra, a professor in the Laboratory of Genetics at the University of Wisconsin.


About bigkingken

A science writer dedicated to proving that the Big Ten - or the Committee on Institutional Cooperation, if you will - is more than athletics.
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