A-maize-ing: Corn genetic developments continue to grow (Poll included)

Maize boasts twice as many genes as humans, makes up nearly 80 percent of U.S. grain production and has been evolving for 3 million years.

Now that’s something to chew on the next time you nibble your way through the popcorn or gnaw on an ear of corn.

Scientists discussed nutritional and drought-defying genetic developments of the versatile crop Friday at the annual meeting for the American Association for the Advancement of Science in Chicago.

“We can’t afford to grow a million varieties of maize all across the world,” said Edward Bucker, a researcher from the United States Department of Agriculture.

Yet recent advancements in the study of corn genetics have allowed researchers to much more quickly and cheaply predict which genes in strains of corn might meet global challenges of nutrition, drought and soil quality. Although scientists will still need to grow different strains, far fewer varieties will be need to be planted.

Scientists now have the ability to look at thousands of maize genes across thousands of varieties. Some of the future in selecting better genetic variations of maize depends on giving weights to certain traits. In other words, scientists will determine which genes are better or worse than others.

Using a soccer analogy, Chris-Carolin Schön from Technical University Munich, said that the new approach is very promising and is like allowing researchers to see what additional value there is to having two complementary players on the field at the same time.

“I have not seen any technology that has revolutionized breeding as much as this has,” Schön said.

With a growing population on Earth, more people will need to eat and scientists believe that these advancements in understanding genetics will make it easier to grow corn that is healthier and requires fewer resources.

Joachim Messing, a researcher from Rutgers University, said that seven pounds of corn are needed to yield one pound of beef.

“You have to eat a lot of corn to get the appropriate amount of amino acids [from protein],” he said.

With improved knowledge of the genetics of maize, scientists hope that the future of the crop will see greater yields, improved nutrition and easier growing capabilities.