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A corn gene identified from a 118-year-old experiment at the University of Illinois could boost yields of today's elite hybrids with no added inputs. The gene, identified in a recent Plant Biotechnology Journal study, controls a critical piece of senescence, or seasonal die-back, in corn. When the gene is turned off, field-grown elite hybrids yielded 4.6 bushels more per acre on average than standard plants.
Dating back to 1896, the Illinois experiment was designed to test whether corn grain composition could be changed through artificial selection, a relatively new concept introduced by Charles Darwin just 37 years earlier. Repeated selection of high- and low-protein corn lines had the intended effect within about 10 generations. As selection for the traits continued, however, additional changes were noticeable.
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"One of the things that was noted as early as the 1930s was that the low-protein line stays greener longer than the high-protein line. It's really obvious," says Stephen Moose, professor in the Department of Crop Sciences at Illinois and co-author of the study.
Staying green longer into the season can mean more yield. The plant continues photosynthesizing and putting energy toward developing grain. But, until now, no one knew the specific gene responsible for the stay-green trait in corn.
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"The stay-green trait is like a 'fountain of youth' for plants because it prolongs photosynthesis and improves yield," says Anne Sylvester, a program director at the National Science Foundation, which funded this research. "This is a great basic discovery with practical impact."
The discovery of the gene was made possible through a decade-long public-private partnership between Illinois and Corteva Agriscience. Moose and Illinois collaborators initially gave Corteva scientists access to a population derived from the long-term corn protein experiment with differences in the stay-green trait. Corteva scientists mapped the stay-green trait to a particular gene, NAC7, and developed corn plants...
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