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UW-Madison geneticist to share $10 million grant to study corn genome

The National Science Foundation has awarded $10 million to a team of researchers, headed by UW-Madison geneticist John Doebley, to study the molecular and functional diversity of the maize (corn) genome. The five-year Plant Genome Research Program grant will fund research at six institutions: UW-Madison, Cornell University, University of California-Irvine, North Carolina State University, University of Missouri-Columbia, and Cold Spring Harbor Lab. The grant runs through December 2008.

“This is among the largest grants awarded for plant research,” said Doebley. As principal investigator of the grant, “Molecular and Functional Diversity in the Maize Genome,” he will ensure coordination of research efforts at participating institutions.

“My main focus is genetic control, the differences between corn and its wild relative teosinte,” said Doebley. Teosinte is a wild grass native to Mexico and Central America. Its name means “grain of the god.” It is corn”s closest relative, with ten pairs of chromosomes, just like those of maize.

Thousands of years ago, the first farmers in Mexico collected teosinte, planted it, harvested a crop, and then planted it again. “The farmers selected teosinte for traits that made it a better crop,” said Doebley. “They converted it into corn through selecting favorable genes and leaving behind unfavorable genes. My part of the project is focused on finding the genes they selected for. I want to understand how these genes changed when corn was domesticated.”

Teosinte ears are tiny compared with the more familiar corn ear. It has only 10 kernels per ear, versus the 800 or so found in our corn, said Doebley. And the corn seed is 25 times larger in modern corn than in teosinte. Stalks of teosinte are noticeably thinner and bear many more ears than corn stalks.

Corn is one of the highest volume crops in the world, annually producing 5.5 billion bushels with a net worth of $40 billion. It is used in a variety of products for human consumption and is a major source of feed for beef, pork and poultry.

Doebley”s research could be important for several reasons. “If we had in our hands the teosinte genes the first farmers selected for, we could manipulate them to make it a better crop, one that was more disease-resistant, needing fewer pesticides, and that uses less area for agriculture.” he said.

Other objectives of the grant include dissecting domestication, agronomic and plant development genomic regions; developing a database to display the project data; and enhancing K-12 science education at rural schools near participating institutions.