Corn plants respond to environmental changes by opening and closing the stomata – or the pores on their leaves. Carbon dioxide goes in when the stomata are open, but water vapor goes out at the same time. These tiny structures are crucially important in climates with less predictable rainfall.
Tony Studer is an assistant professor of crop sciences at the University of Illinois. He’s studying the signaling pathway of the stomata and the genes involved that respond to environmental conditions. The goal is to develop a more water-efficient corn plant.
"The easiest way to get a water use efficient plant is to have it shut its stomata, it doesn’t take in any CO2 for photosynthesis, and it’s a really runty-looking plant and it doesn’t produce any biomass or grain," says Studer. "And so, what we’re trying to do is really tune the system, so that we’re still getting enough CO2 in for productivity and yield but we’re optimizing it for efficiency and so you’re losing less water at the same time."
Studer says they’ve made mutations in the genes and broken the system that cause stomata to respond to internal and external cues.
"From breaking the system, from our genetic studies and putting together the signaling pathway, we think we’ve come upon how to make them better," he says. "The plants that I get this summer and begin testing will really tell us if we’ve hit on it. You know, that takes a couple years of data, it takes getting out moving the research into a production-type environment. So, my lab has been focusing on that a lot more lately to try to speed up delivering a product to the farmer."