Scientists at the Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory led by Professor David Jackson has found a gene that could help boost the productivity of corn plants by packing more kernels into cobs. The scientists say that one way to boost the productivity of a plant is to redirect some of its resources away from maintaining an overprepared immune system into enhanced seed production.
In the wild, plants are constantly on guard and maintain a robust immune system to counter any attack. This vigilance comes at a cost as energy spent on pathogen defense cannot be used to grow taller or produce seeds. It is different for crop plants, though, as corn growing in a farmer's carefully tended field face fewer threats. In this controlled environment, plants could probably ease up on their anti-pathogen protections--but getting them to do so will require some genetic tinkering.
In work reported in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, the research team identified a gene in corn that contributes to both the plant's development and to the control of its immune system. Manipulating this gene, they say, could be a way to increase crop yields by reprogramming how a plant balances its investments in growth and defense. Corn plants cannot survive without the gene, called Gß (pronounced GEE beta) as it encodes part of an essential signaling complex. Seedlings engineered to lack Gß quickly turn brown and die because the plant needs the gene to keep its immune system in check. Without it, an overactive immune system attacks the plant's own cells. In their experiments, the team found that plants can grow without Gß. They also discovered that Gß also impacts the size of a plant's meristems. Lastly, the team linked naturally occurring variations in the Gß gene to the production of corn ears with unusually abundant kernels.
(Source: Crop Biotech Update, International Service for Acquisition of Agri-Biotech Applications. www.isaaa.org)