VOLUME 19 #3

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Gene researchers focus on orange corn

Corn researchersJixian Zhai, Tzuu-fen Lee, Blake Meyers and Stacey Simon
Photos by Danielle Quigley
The team studying the orange corn mutation (below) includes (above, from left) Jixian Zhai, Tzuu-fen Lee, Blake Meyers and Stacey Simon.

RESEARCH | A mutation that turns corn orange might hold the key to unlocking other genetic secrets that could someday enable scientists to breed crops with characteristics such as drought resistance that could be “switched on” and off as needed.

corn with Ufo1

In an early attempt to understand the genetic impact of this mutation in corn, known as unstable factor for orange1, or Ufo1, researchers from UD and Penn State University have received a $1.2 million grant from the National Science Foundation. Leading the Delaware team is Blake Meyers, Edward F. and Elizabeth Goodman Rosenberg Professor and chair of the Department of Plant and Soil Sciences.

Ufo1 not only affects the color of the corn, turning the ears from the standard yellow to an orange hue, but also has more severe impacts ranging from stunted growth to “whiplash,” a growth defect in which the stalk bends backward toward the ground.

One important aim of the project is the basic research to understand how gene silencing functions and how it can impact different cellular pathways. This mutant is of interest because it has an “epigenetic” effect on other genes, meaning that Ufo1 produces inherited states in other genes that are caused not by altered nucleotides in the DNA, but by reversible modifications of the DNA, Meyers says.

The research on Ufo1 is being conducted on two fronts, with Surinder Chopra, associate professor of maize genetics at Penn State, working to identify the specific gene that is the Ufo1 mutation and Meyers trying to understand the genetic and genomic impacts of that mutation.

“Basically one gene is altering the expression of many other genes through some sort of epigenetic modification,” Meyers says. “I’m trying to understand, in a global genomic context, what is the impact of this mutation.”

Meyers says he hopes for a happy convergence of the projects, with Chopra pinpointing the gene and Meyers identifying all of the genes or regions of the genome that are showing epigenetic alterations.

Once they discover the mutant gene and its consequences in the corn, the researchers may be able to compare how the mutation affects corn with how similar mutations affect other types of plants. Eventually, this research could potentially lead to the ability to regulate certain genes, meaning that the researchers would be able to turn on or turn off certain traits of a plant species without having to mutate the gene.

“It might provide us new ways to switch on and off different traits in a way that’s stably inherited but not necessarily always on or always off,” Meyers says. “It gives us a new tool in our toolbox for altering gene activity and then potentially different plant phenotypes.”

For instance, if the researchers needed to breed corn that is drought resistant, they could potentially turn on the drought-resistant gene in geographic areas where corn needs that trait and turn it off in those areas where it doesn’t. They could find a way to make these genes inherited through a stable means, turning the genes on or off for the next generation as surroundings dictate.

“You might want to only turn them on in the case that you think that the next generation might need them because there might also be some fitness ‘cost’ to having them on, and you wouldn’t want to incur that cost,” Meyers says.

Article by Adam Thomas

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