Corn, also known as maize, has been intertwined with humans since it was domesticated in ancient times. First cultivated by the Aztecs and Mayans, the crop spread from the Americas through Europe in the 15th century and onto the rest of the world. For almost as long, people have worked with corn to develop new ways to grow it under less-than-perfect situations. But as The Christian Science Monitor reports, scientists have accomplished something that could make the cultivation of corn infinitely easier: researchers have cataloged 95 percent of the corn genome.
The discovery, partially funded by the USDA, will help scientists determine what genes can be used to improve crop efficiency or allow the plant to survive during hard times. The corn genome was found to be around 32,000 genes within 10 chromosomes. (Humans have 20,000 genes within 23 chromosomes.) Dr. Richard K. Wilson is the director of Washington University's Genome Center and leader of the study. As he told Science Daily, "Now [seed companies] will know exactly where those genes are. Having the complete genome in hand will make it easier to breed new varieties of corn that produce higher yields or are more tolerant to extreme heat, drought, or other conditions."
Other experts like Dr. Molly Jan, U.S. deputy undersecretary of agriculture for research, education, and economics, agree that this discovery is “an enormous advance” for the planet, which is now largely dependent on corn. Essentially, understanding the genome will allow for stronger plants and larger crops. Today, 332 metric tons of corn are grown just in the United States. Much of it is eaten, but parts of corn can be found in beauty products and more. Ethanol fuels are also derived from corn.
Jan also points out to The Christian Science Monitor that an increased understanding of corn may lead to greater environmental protections. Corn may be developed to take up less nitrogen from the plants soil. This will lead to a lesser need for fertilizers, and therefore less dangerous runoff into our waterways.
Some experts believe this revelation will also have long-term effects in combating disease. Virginia Walbot is a molecular geneticist at Stanford University, and she spoke of the sequencing to the Washington Post. According to Walbot, "The fact that example after example of these unexpected phenomena are also at work in mammals suggests that scientists interested in things like human diseases would be well-served to pay attention to what's happening in plants, and in corn in particular." The human genome was mapped in 2003 by U.S. Department of Energy and the National Institutes of Health.
For further reading:
- Plant scientists build a Sears catalog for corn genome
- Amaising: Corn genome decoded
- Scientists have high hopes for corn genome