Scientists at universities and corporations are about to get a major leg up in their tireless — and profitable — effort to reinvent the corn plant. A group of researchers led by Washington University in St. Louis have mapped out the corn plant's massive genome, and is posting the research on the Internet.
The project's leader said the sequence map is the holy grail for scientists trying to improve a crop that is traded globally for food, animal feed and fuel.
"If you really want to get into the nuts and bolts, all the parts, and understand how things fit together and how things work ... the genome is basically the key to doing that," said Richard Wilson, director of Washington University's Genome Sequencing Center.
There is still some clean-up work left to be done to the corn genome sequence, though it is essentially completed, he said. The genome will be publicly announced Thursday at the 50th Annual Maize Genetics Conference in Washington D.C.
Corn production underpins much of the U.S. and global food supply, providing feed for livestock and ingredients for processed foods that run the gamut from wheat bread to soft drinks. A burgeoning demand for corn-based ethanol fuel has driven the price up, and put greater pressure on farmers to grow more corn per acre.
Agribusiness corporations like Monsanto Co. are tweaking the corn genome to increase the plant's productivity. Monsanto's Chief Technology Officer Robert Fraley said having access to the corn genome will push research forward by helping university researchers discover new corn traits. Companies like Monsanto will then be able to license those discoveries for new products, he said.
The sequence "is going to ultimately be one of the breakthroughs that contributes to drive corn yield in the future," Fraley said.
Corn is only the third plant to have its genome sequenced, Wilson said, behind rice and a popular plant for genetic research called Arabidopsis.
The $29.5 million corn genome project was funded by the National Science Foundation, the U.S. Department of Agriculture and the U.S. Department of Energy. Fraley said Monsanto contributed gene-mapping technology and some of its own gene maps to the effort.
The farm lobby has long pushed for the public funding.
"We started 10 years ago, building this funding and working with government agencies," said Nathan Fields, director of technology and business development with the National Corn Growers' Association.
The benefit for farmers will come from new lines of corn that withstand environmental stress and produce more yield, Fields said. The United States produced about 13.1 billion bushels of corn last year worth $3 billion, which is roughly 44 percent of the global supply.
Wilson said a key field of research will be discovering which genes in the sequence lead to which specific traits in a stalk of corn.
"That's what we still have to learn," he said.