Nebraska Researchers Identify Genes that Help Corn Adapt to New Environments

Corn roots
The root system of a three-week-old corn plant processed through a computer vision pipeline used to automatically measure different root system architecture traits. (Photo courtesy Nebraska Today)

Nebraska Researchers Identify Genes that Help Corn Adapt to New Environments

Corn plays a key role in Nebraska’s economy and identity. Yet, this was not always the case.

Corn was first domesticated in the tropical latitudes of central Mexico. Over thousands of years, corn learned to thrive in the very different growing conditions found in temperate North America. Corn made a breakthrough in figuring out how to thrive in temperate climates that now enables the crop to play a key role in ensuring both farmer prosperity and food security across six continents.

A team of University of Nebraska–Lincoln researchers have made a critical step forward in figuring out what changes allowed corn to make that breakthrough. In research published recently in the journal Genome Biology, the Nebraska-based team measured the expression of 10,000s of genes in the roots of hundreds of different kinds of corn including temperate adapted varieties that grow and thrive here in Nebraska, and tropical varieties which can only complete their lifecycle farther south — or in advanced greenhouses such as those found on Nebraska’s Innovation Campus.

The Nebraska team identified a set of genes whose expression levels were variable and genetically controlled across different tropical corn varieties, but had very consistent expression in temperate corn varieties. They were able to link these genes first to regions of the corn genome targeted by selection as the crop adapted to temperate climates and then to specific changes in the properties of corn, including when corn flowers, that would help it thrive in new environments.

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A field of corn.