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UNL develops new method to identify corn genes

UNL develops new method to identify corn genes

By Scout Nelson

Researchers at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln are advancing the breeding of better corn varieties, a process that has traditionally been time-consuming and costly, offering farmers a brighter future.

The challenge lies in identifying the specific genes that control desirable traits in corn. Traditionally, this involved a slow and costly analysis of DNA. A research team led by Dr. Vladimir Torres-Rodriguez has developed a groundbreaking new method that utilizes RNA – the molecule responsible for carrying genetic instructions – to pinpoint these genes.

This innovative approach has yielded impressive results. The UNL team successfully identified ten times more corn genes affecting flowering time compared to conventional DNA-based methods. This translates to a significant leap forward in breeding efficiency.

"Faster and more accurate identification of corn gene function could significantly reduce the cost of bringing new gene-edited corn varieties to market," explains Dr. James Schnable, a professor of agronomy and horticulture at UNL and a key collaborator in the research.

This translates to potential benefits for both farmers and consumers. Increased competition among seed companies due to lower development costs could lead to more affordable and higher-performing corn varieties.

Faster breeding cycles could allow for the development of corn with improved resistance to harsh weather conditions, ultimately leading to more stable crop yields.

The project itself was a massive undertaking. The researchers meticulously measured RNA levels in over 39,000 corn genes across nearly 700 corn varieties grown at UNL's Havelock Farm. This data was then combined with field measurements collected from both Nebraska and collaborators at Michigan State University.

The team, led by research manager Jonathan Turkus, utilized innovative analysis techniques and meticulous field practices, including the development of specialized 3D printers for rapid sample collection and flash-freezing, crucial for preserving vital RNA molecules.

"The result is the world's largest dataset of corn gene expression measurements," says Torres-Rodriguez, highlighting the project's significant contribution to the field of corn research.

Torres-Rodriguez plans to further explore corn traits using a new method, aiming to ensure that corn planted in Nebraska will have the genetics to perform well and tolerate harsher conditions in the future.

UNL is well-positioned to become a hub for corn research, attracting collaborations from established giants and emerging startups in the agricultural technology sector. This project demonstrates the university's commitment to innovation and its potential to empower farmers with improved corn varieties.

Photo Credit: gettyimages-dszc

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