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Desirable Traits: Next-generation Crops Withstand Climate Variation

26 February 2013

Propped in the corner of Guri Johal’s office are a few corn stalks —nothing out of the ordinary for a plant scientist at Purdue University, except that one is usually a bit shorter than the others.

Purdue researcher Nick Carpita and collaborators are testing new types of biomass plants to determine which have the capability to generate the most energy with the fewest inputs. Here, John Klimek, a biologist in Carpita's laboratory, samples juice squeezed from sorghum on a Purdue farm to determine the amount of sugar the plant produces.

A closer look shows that the smaller plant has more leaves at the top and more ears than its conventional counterparts. Johal, a maize molecular geneticist, says scientists worked for decades to squeeze the most plants onto an acre to increase grain yield. Now it’s time to search through the thousands of maize genes to fine-tune leaf placement, architecture and other characteristics to get the next big boost.

In addition to harvesting more solar energy for grain yield, those few extra leaves play another important role, Johal says. They delay tasseling by a few days or so, just enough time for another ear to develop and be pollinated. “That tremendously improves the productivity of the plant,” Johal says. “This plant type has the potential to revolutionize corn breeding and production.”

And making the plants shorter reduces input costs, such as fertilizer and pesticides, while making the plants sturdier in the face of high winds and storms.

Johal is one of dozens of Purdue plant scientists improving crops and management systems to help farmers provide for a planet in need of more food and energy.

Adapting to Change

Mitch Tuinstra, a maize geneticist, is also planning for the future, though it is an uncertain one. “In the face of climate change, it may be wetter here, drier here. We don’t know what to expect from year to year, but we do expect higher temperatures,” Tuinstra says.

Those uncertainties are leading Tuinstra to develop corn that uses less nitrogen and that is heat-, drought- and flood-resistant. He is working with maize plants from Southeast Asia and the tropics that have naturally adapted to those conditions. The goal is to find genes that impart those adaptive characteristics and integrate them into conventional hybrids.

Fields of Fuel

Nick Carpita, a plant cell biologist, is also looking to lesser-known varieties of plants, but he wants characteristics that enhance cellulosic and next-generation biofuels.

“We’re looking for genetic variations that we can stack for desired traits,” Carpita says. “If it’s for cellulosic ethanol, you may prefer a different combination of genetic traits than you would for bioprocessing corn into ethanol.”

Carpita and collaborators Nathan Mosier and Cliff Weil from Purdue Agriculture are also looking at the viability of sorghum—which seems to need less water and fewer nutrients—as a biofuel crop. They’re testing 10 varieties on a Purdue farm to determine which may provide the most materials for fuel.

Another Route

Clint Chapple wants to see if it’s possible to create some fuel bypassing the traditional ethanol-making process altogether. He’s working on rerouting the metabolism of a plant so that it creates biofuel itself.

“We want to take carbon that usually goes toward lignin (which provides rigidity in cell walls) and re-route it so that the plant makes a compound that you could drop directly into your gas tank,” says Chapple, a biochemist.

Chapple has already developed technology that manipulates plant cell walls to reduce costs for making paper, a technology that also increases the amount of sugars accessible to create biofuels.

Putting It into Practice

Purdue Extension Specialist Shaun Casteel investigates how to best integrate genetic improvements and management practices to increase yield and profitability.

Once plants are manipulated to produce more, growers need to know how to maximize the new traits.

Shaun Casteel, Purdue Extension soybean specialist, investigates soybean lines from as early as the 1920s through today to see how genetic improvements and management practices such as planting dates, planting density and nitrogen fixation work together or against each other to affect yield.

“We need to integrate management with genetics to provide a system to increase production and profits for growers,” Casteel says. “Are we stacking the decks against each other, or can we increase our production and protection of our crops simply by planting earlier or later?”

Each scientist has a different specific goal, but they’re all working toward the same one overall: improved crops that will stand up to the challenges posed by a changing world.

February 2013

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