NSF funds $3.4 million grant to improve maize crops

October 12, 2017

Researchers from the Department of Plant and Microbial Biology (PMB) and the Donald Danforth Plant Science Center have been awarded a five-year, $3.4 million grant from the National Science Foundation (NSF) to improve the productivity of maize. Sarah Hake, director of the USDA Plan Gene Expression Center and an adjunct professor in PMB, will work with a team of Danforth Center and university researchers on the project.


The team’s research will develop novel methods for predicting a plant’s phenotype from its genetic code and will manipulate plant architecture traits in maize to enhance yield potential.


“I have a longstanding interest in the maize leaf and inflorescence,” said Hake. “This project will allow me to combine these interests and understand how development of these plant parts are regulated—both separately and in coordination.”


The collaborative project brings together expertise in molecular genetics, developmental genomics, and statistics to meet the food and fuel demands of a growing population. The multidisciplinary team is led by Danforth Center researcher Andrea Eveland, and also includes Alexander Lipka of the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign and Patrick Brown of UC Davis. By integrating molecular and quantitative approaches, the group will define the gene networks that control leaf angle and panicle architecture in maize and map key regulatory loci as targets for manipulating these traits using genome editing technologies. New methods for incorporating biological network information in genomic selection models to predict phenotype from genotype will also be explored.


Maize has the highest dollar value of any cereal crop, both in the US and abroad. Maize yields have increased eightfold in the past century due largely to selecting for optimal plant architecture. However, yield gains have plateaued in recent years.


“Developing the next generation of high-yielding varieties will require a detailed knowledge base of the complex gene networks that control plant morphology, which can be applied to breeding or engineering optimal plant architectures,” said Eveland. “Since the networks controlling different aspects of growth and development are tightly interconnected, it is essential that we understand how manipulation of one trait affects others at the molecular level. This precise level of control is largely coordinated by the non-genic regions of the genome, which we know very little about. With this project, we hope to make significant advances in decoding gene regulatory mechanisms connecting important agronomic traits.”


Plant architecture—the number and arrangement of organs such as branches, leaves, flowers on a plant—is central to crop productivity and has been a primary target in the domestication and improvement of many crops. For example, breeding for upright leaves allows light capture within the lower canopy in dense fields, while optimizing the structure of the grain-bearing panicle improves seed set, grain fill and harvestability. In maize, genes that control leaf angle also affect panicle architecture, so understanding how these traits are connected at the molecular level will enable greater precision in decoupling target outcomes from undesirable effects.


The NSF grant will also support an educational component featuring interactive curricula in quantitative genetics and genomics for high school and rural community college teachers and students.


Read the full story on the Danforth Center's website.