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Is dwarf corn the next big thing?
Remember this word, because it might be one of the biggest developments in corn production research in the last decade: Brassinosteroids.
That's the name of a naturally occurring steroid hormone in corn plants that a Purdue University researcher has found has a fairly substantial impact on a plant's structure and development. When corn plants are mutated or otherwise changed to keep them from producing the hormone, it has a pretty dramatic effect on both the crop's physical appearance and yield potential.
When a corn plant's ability to produce brassinosteroids is "turned off" through a natural mutation, a fairly dramatic change takes place. It essentially becomes a dwarf, according to a university report. And, more importantly, it loses the ability to produce male organs, in this case the tassels. Instead, kernels develop where tassels would be in a plant that produces the hormone.
"This would be the perfect mutation for hybrid seed production," says Purdue horticulturist Burkhard Schulz, whose research on the topic was recently featured by the National Academy of Sciences. "There is no way these plants could produce pollen because they do not have male flowers."
Schulz's findings, if implemented on a wider, commercial scale, could have major implications. First, it would simplify seed corn production since producers would no longer have to worry about the corn pollinating on its own. "This would be the perfect mutation for hybrid seed production," Schulz says in a university report. "There is no way these plants could produce pollen because they do not have male flowers."
Secondly, the resulting "dwarf" corn plants could open the door to more yield potential. Shorter plants without tassels would be able to devote more energy to grain production, similar to the "semi-dwarf" wheat varieties Dr. Norman Borlaug developed in his research in Mexico in the 1940s and 1950s. And, smaller plants with more resources devoted to the grain they yield could help farmers meet growing demand for the crop.
"[Corn] produces too much pollen and it actually wastes a lot of energy on that," adds Gurmukh Johal, a Purdue plant pathologist who has worked with Schulz on the plant steroid hormone research. "This implies that by using this gene or the pathway it controls, we could manipulate the plants to improve their quality."