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A closer look at corn DNA by Danforth Center scientists could help lagging yields

Bayer says glyphosate is a key tool for farmers as they try to control weeds and produce enough corn and other crops to help feed the world.
File Photo | Adam Allington | St. Louis Public Radio
A cornfield.

The National Science Foundation has awarded $3.4 million to researchers at the Donald Danforth Plant Science Center, the University of Illinois-Champaign-Urbana and the University of California-Davis to study genes that promote high corn yields.

Advances in crop technology have helped boost corn yields by eightfold in the last century. But productivity of the staple crop has plateaued in recent years and that has pushed researchers to take a closer look at genes that can improve production and help feed the world's rising human population.

Scientists at the Danforth center will use the five-year grant to examine genes that are responsible for specific features of the corn plant. That includes leaf angle, which can make a difference in how much a farmer can plant in a field. 

"You can imagine if your plant has more upright leaves, you can plant more in a row," said Andrea Eveland, a researcher at the Danforth Center. 

Upright leaves will also expose lower parts of the plant to more sunlight, allowing for more photosynthesis to occur. Eveland added that plant breeders have long focused selecting plants that have favorable traits, such as upright leaves, but scientists have much to learn about the genes that are linked to them. 

Agricultural statistician Alexander Lipka at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign said that the research could improve the quantity of corn grown and the quality of common food products that depend on the crop. 

"Corn is ubiquitous in a lot of foods that we eat and also it's really important for animal feed," Lipka said, "so [the research] could also indirectly benefit the quality of the beef that we eat from a cow or the quality of milk." 

Follow Eli on Twitter: @StoriesByEli

Eli is the science and environment reporter at St. Louis Public Radio.