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Danforth Center’s corn study could make crops more resilient to climate change

A cornfield outside of Valmeyer, Illinois. Aug 31, 2018
Brian Heffernan | St. Louis Public Radio

Researchers at the Donald Danforth Plant Science Center want to learn how a changing climate could affect the fertility of corn and other major crops.

Scientists at the Danforth Center, Stanford University and the University of Delaware have received a $3.5-million grant from the National Science Foundation to take a closer look at anthers in maize plants. Anthers — the male reproductive part of the plant — generate pollen.

The researchers are particularly interested in molecules called small RNAs that play a key role in pollen production. Small RNAs are a type of RNA which transport genetic information throughout a cell to allow it to produce proteins. Research in recent years has shown that high temperatures could negatively affect the small RNAs in a way that can make a corn plant sterile.

“As temperatures go up, anthers are one of the plants’ organs that are most susceptible to increased temperature,” said Blake Meyers, a researcher at the Danforth Center. “Fertility goes down as temperatures go up, and obviously that can have a major impact on agricultural productivity.”

Meyers’ collaborator at the University of Delaware, Jeffrey Caplan, is focused on using a variety of imaging technology to find the small RNAs in the anther.

“By knowing where they’re located, we’ll get a better sense of how they function,” Caplan said.

The research is mainly focused on hybrid corn, but scientists say that the finding could apply to other crops, such as wheat and barley. Funds for the project will run for four years.

Follow Eli on Twitter: @StoriesByEli 

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