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Sept. 13, 2016

MSU to use $4.4M NSF grant to explore the corn genome

The National Science Foundation has awarded $4.4 million to a Michigan State University research team to identify genes in the corn genome, work that could help breed new, more nutritious corn varieties in the future.

“Plants are a key source of dietary vitamins,” said Robin Buell, MSU Foundation Professor of Plant Biology, and co-principal investigator of the research project. “Improving the diversity and levels of vitamins in major staple crops such as maize (corn) provides one mechanism to reduce diseases caused by vitamin deficiencies, a condition that affects billions of people worldwide.”

The collaborative research project is led by principal investigator Dean DellaPenna, a University Distinguished Professor of biochemistry at MSU. The research will aim to identify a portion of the more than 40,000 genes in the corn genome, zeroing in on those that together work to determine the levels of five essential dietary vitamins in corn kernels: vitamin E and the four B vitamins, BI (thiamin), B2 (riboflavin), B3 (niacin) and B6 (pyridoxine).

By combining approaches similar to those used in the Human Genome Project, the researchers hope to identify special variations in these “vitamin” genes, and discover how to put them together to generate high amounts of vitamins in corn kernels.

The results of the research could have significant implications for the future production of corn, the most commonly grown grain crop in the United States and the second-most produced crop in the world.

“This project will identify the specific genetic location in corn that can be used in the future to breed new corn varieties with improved vitamin content, thereby impacting the diet and health for people with vitamin-deficient diets worldwide," Buell said.

Broader goals of the research will be to advance the knowledge of enhancing micronutrient levels in corn kernels, and to provide guiding principles for parallel efforts in other agricultural crops, enabling predictive breeding and engineering of more nutritious crops worldwide.

The NSF’s Plant Genome Research Program began in 1998 as part of the National Plant Genome Initiative and has aided an increase in the availability of functional genomics tools and sequence resources for use in the study of key crop plants and their models.