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Pathway Associations Tool identifies genes resistant to corn earworm and mold

PAST helps scientists search for prized crop genes.

A new computer application called Pathway Associations Tool (PAST) from Agricultural Research Service (ARS) could speed the search for genes that underpin important crop traits, like high yield, seed quality, and resistance to pests, disease, or adverse environmental conditions.

PAST builds upon genome-wide association studies of crops, which look at a crop plant’s genome for desired traits, flag the genomic whereabouts of those genes, and help plant breeders follow the trait’s inheritance and expression. This makes it easier to select plants that have the desired trait and develop new, elite varieties from them for producers.

Marilyn Warburton, a geneticist with ARS’s Corn Host Plant Resistance Research Unit (CHPRRU) in Mississippi State, Mississippi, says about 900 users from around the world have downloaded the app so far.

READ MORE: Shift corn seeding rate based on field potential

In her own research, Warburton’s use of both genome-wide association studies and PAST has already led to the identification of genes in corn plants for resistance to the corn earworm (a caterpillar pest) and Aspergillus flavus, a greenish mold that produces a carcinogen called aflatoxin.

Unchecked, corn earworms feed on the corn plant’s silks and kernels, causing damage that fosters Aspergillus growth and aflatoxin contamination.

Outbreaks of Aspergillus molds that produce the carcinogen inflict more than $200 million annually in economic losses for corn and $300 million for peanuts and other crops combined. Warburton’s research is part of a broader effort at CHPRRU together with Mississippi State University (MSU) collaborators to preempt aflatoxin on multiple fronts – with plantings of resistant corn varieties being a keystone defense.

Warburton’s team includes Adam Thrash (MSU graduate student), Daniel Peterson (MSU faculty), Mason Deornellis (MSU undergraduate) and Juliet Tang (an ARS postdoc, now a scientist with the Forest Service). They have assisted in the development, testing, and release of PAST.

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