look shows that the smaller plant has more leaves at the top and more ears than
its conventional counterparts. Johal, a maize molecular geneticist, says
scientists worked for decades to squeeze the most plants onto an acre to increase
grain yield. Now it’s time to search through the thousands of maize genes to
fine-tune leaf placement, architecture and other characteristics to get the
next big boost.
addition to harvesting more solar energy for grain yield, those few extra leaves
play another important role, Johal says. They delay tasseling by a few days or
so, just enough time for another ear to develop and be pollinated. “That
tremendously improves the productivity of the plant,” Johal says. “This plant
type has the potential to revolutionize corn breeding and production.”
making the plants shorter reduces input costs, such as fertilizer and
pesticides, while making the plants sturdier in the face of high winds and
one of dozens of Purdue plant scientists improving crops and management systems
to help farmers provide for a planet in need of more food and energy.
Mitch Tuinstra, a maize
geneticist, is also planning for the future, though it is an uncertain one. “In
the face of climate change, it may be wetter here, drier here. We don’t know
what to expect from year to year, but we do expect higher temperatures,”
uncertainties are leading Tuinstra to develop corn that uses less nitrogen and
that is heat-, drought- and flood-resistant. He is working with maize plants
from Southeast Asia and the tropics that have naturally adapted to those
conditions. The goal is to find genes that impart those adaptive
characteristics and integrate them into conventional hybrids.
Nick Carpita, a plant
cell biologist, is also looking to lesser-known varieties of plants, but he
wants characteristics that enhance cellulosic and next-generation biofuels.
looking for genetic variations that we can stack for desired traits,” Carpita
says. “If it’s for cellulosic ethanol, you may prefer a different combination
of genetic traits than you would for bioprocessing corn into ethanol.”
and collaborators Nathan Mosier and Cliff
Weil from Purdue
Agriculture are also looking at the viability of
sorghum—which seems to need less water and fewer nutrients—as a biofuel crop.
They’re testing 10 varieties on a Purdue farm to determine which may provide
the most materials for fuel.
Clint Chapple wants to
see if it’s possible to create some fuel bypassing the traditional
ethanol-making process altogether. He’s working on rerouting the metabolism of
a plant so that it creates biofuel itself.
to take carbon that usually goes toward lignin (which provides rigidity in cell
walls) and re-route it so that the plant makes a compound that you could drop
directly into your gas tank,” says Chapple, a biochemist.
has already developed technology that manipulates plant cell walls to reduce
costs for making paper, a technology that also increases the amount of sugars
accessible to create biofuels.
Purdue Extension Specialist Shaun Casteel investigates how to best integrate genetic improvements and management practices to increase yield and profitability.
It into Practice
plants are manipulated to produce more, growers need to know how to maximize
the new traits.
Shaun Casteel, Purdue Extension soybean
specialist, investigates soybean lines from as early as the 1920s through today
to see how genetic improvements and management practices such as planting
dates, planting density and nitrogen fixation work together or against each
other to affect yield.
to integrate management with genetics to provide a system to increase
production and profits for growers,” Casteel says. “Are we stacking the decks
against each other, or can we increase our production and protection of our
crops simply by planting earlier or later?”
Each scientist has a different specific
goal, but they’re all working toward the same one overall: improved crops that
will stand up to the challenges posed by a changing world.
scientists working to make drought-resistant crops
Sorghum should be in the mix as a biofuel crop
gets $5.2 million to develop new biofuel process