As the Earth’s population grows and climate change wreaks havoc on agriculture across the world, food security is going to become a major global problem. That is, unless we can find a way to maximize available farmland. A team of biologists from Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory may have done just that by harnessing a natural genetic mutation that raises corn crop yields by a massive 50%.
In a new paper published in Nature Genetics, the team outlines the discovery of a genetic pathway that stops ears of corn from growing once they reach a certain size — and a specific mutation that overcomes that built-in limit. The key is in a specific receptor, dubbed FEA3, which is found in the meristem of the plant and processes signals from the leaves telling the ears to stop growing.
In some cases, the FEA3 receptors are nonfunctional due to a genetic mutation, allowing the cells of the corn to grown out of control. While that may sound good in theory, the biologists quickly ran into an unexpected problem: instead of growing giant ears of corn, the mutation tends to produce small, misshapen ears, due to the fact that the plant produces far more stem cells than it can support.
However, when hybridized with normal corn so that only some of the receptors carry the mutation, the growth of the corn starts to get interesting. Not only did the new ears survive, they were much larger than normal ears of corn, resulting in about 50% more kernels than researchers had seen before.
While this is an exciting breakthrough for corn farmers, it also has implications for other agricultural products. Scientists have observed similar mutations in most of the world’s other staple crops, so we could potentially see new breeds of wheat or rice with increased yields as well. For now, however, this incredible finding is confined to the lab for further study.
Images via Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory