Scientists Used Gene Editing to Make Super Corn
The resulting crop could be more sustainable than current varieties
Reengineering Life is a column from Future Human about the ways humans are using biology to reprogram our bodies and the world around us.
Thanks to selective breeding over the course of some 9,000 years, humans were able to transform an ancient wild grass with dinky cobs and a handful of kernels into the sweet, juicy corn we know today.
More recently, scientists have used genetic engineering to further transform the crop, resulting in pest-resistant corn. Now, researchers think gene editing — which is far more precise than traditional genetic engineering — could improve corn even more. In a recent study published in Nature Plants, researchers used gene editing to increase the number of kernels on ears of corn.
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The researchers think the strategy could lead to more sustainable crops, which would be a boon for the United States, where more than 90 million acres of land are used for corn. Around a third of all the corn produced is used for livestock feed, while another third is used to make ethanol, a renewable fuel added to gasoline. The rest of the country’s corn is harvested for human consumption or industrial uses or is exported elsewhere.
To make their super corn, researchers at Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory in New York and the University of Massachusetts used the gene-editing technique CRISPR to tinker with corn kernel numbers. They targeted a group of genes in the maize genome involved in the promotion of stem cell growth. Like in humans, stem cells provide plants with a source of new cells to regenerate damaged or diseased tissue.
“Farmers are going to be using fewer resources — less land, less fertilizer, less water, and less time to get more kernels.”