Naturally mutating corn pollen genes may lead the way to higher-yielding crops

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Pollen genes mutate naturally in only some strains of corn, according to Rutgers-led research that helps explain the genetic instability in certain strains and may lead to better breeding of corn and other crops.

Scientists….looked at gene mutations that arise spontaneously in corn plant pollen. Pollen grains are the male gametes, or reproductive cells, in corn plants. The scientists estimated there were several mutations per gene per million pollen grains….

In all organisms, mutations that happen spontaneously provide the raw material for natural selection and evolution. But mutations are so infrequent that scientists use special “mutation accumulation” lines to study them. The Rutgers-led team found that the mutations in pollen were caused primarily by mobile retrotransposons, which are like retroviruses in mammals, within the corn plant. Retroviruses invade cells, convert their viral RNA to DNA and merge it with the cells’ DNA.

Related article:  Bacterial leaf streak disease can slash corn yields 20%—will science stop it?

Next steps are to investigate whether retrotransposon-induced mutations cause the genetic instability in corn lines previously reported by breeders, and whether activating retrotransposons in corn and other important crops could benefit them.

Read full, original article: Pollen genes mutate naturally in only some strains of corn

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