Research News

Corn gene boosts sugar in leaves and seeds, may lead to better crops

Maize ufo1 gene responsible for creating mutant corn line

An abnormal buildup of carbohydrates -- sugars and starches -- in the kernels and leaves of a mutant line of corn can be traced to one mis-regulated gene. The discovery offers clues about how the plant deals with stress.

That is the conclusion of Penn State researchers whose study discovered the Maize ufo1 gene responsible for creating the mutant corn line. The scientists are now assessing the gene's effects, and its potential for breeding new lines of corn better able to thrive in a warming world.

"This discovery has implications for food security and breeding new crop lines that can better deal with a changing climate," said Surinder Chopra, a maize geneticist at Penn State.

Can plant geneticists incorporate the ufo1 gene to improve corn? That is the question Chopra is trying to answer, starting with this new study that found elevated sugar levels in seeds and leaves of the mutant corn line.

What traits can be improved in corn with the ufo1 gene's help?

"Certainly, stress tolerance, but also likely seed development, which has implications in seed yield as well as improved biomass," Chopra said. "And we would like to develop a better plant type that could grow in more dense culture, yet still be more productive. And finally, we need to look at resiliency and sustainability. Can we breed corn lines that get the same amount of yield with lower fertilizer inputs and need less water?"

The U.S. National Science Foundation-funded researchers published their findings in the journal Plant Physiology.

"This project is a great example of how basic research in molecular and cellular biosciences can lead to findings with direct impacts on the bioeconomy," said Steve DiFazio, a program director in NSF's Division of Molecular and Cellular Biosciences. "A deeper understanding of how this gene functions could accelerate the development of corn varieties with enhanced grain quality tailored for specific uses."