It’s the peak of sweetcorn season in Iowa, and field corn’s ripening across the state. Iowa State University professor Eric Vollbrecht says if we can figure out how Central American natives hundreds of years ago domesticated the plant known as maize, we could find more plants with genes that might prove valuable in the crops grown in Iowa. He says the first step is to figure out just what the ancient farmers did, and how many genes were involved, to get an idea of how easy it’ll be to tackle the problem. One of the strengths of the maize gene pool, he says, is that we can “dip into the ancestral pool,” and it has plenty of genetic diversity. In addition to reviewing how hand-breeding produced the corn we grow today, Vollbrecht is using today’s high-tech genetic research techniques to tackle the problem from the other direction. They’ve laid out a framework for the maize genome, and know there are about fifty-thousand genes. It’s not done yet, as Vollbrecht says they have a sequence, or map, of “the gene islands is how we refer to it, but the ‘oceans’ that are between the genes are still to be sorted out.” He says researchers are finding out some plants have more genes than the cells of animals. “It’s not because plants are more complicated, but plants have different challenges,” he explains. “For example, plants can’t get up and run away from troiuble. They need to figure out ways to deal with adverse conditions right where they are.” Before coming to Iowa State University, Vollbrecht worked with a Long Island research group that’s just published a paper in the journal “Nature” identifying a key gene responsible for understanding the valuable plant.
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