CRISPR ‘super corn’ with more kernels could reduce land, fertilizer and water use

Credit: Thinkstock
Credit: Thinkstock

Thanks to selective breeding over the course of some 9,000 years, humans were able to transform an ancient wild grass with dinky cobs and a handful of kernels into the sweet, juicy corn we know today.

More recently, scientists have used genetic engineering to further transform the crop, resulting in pest-resistant corn. Now, researchers think gene editing — which is far more precise than traditional genetic engineering — could improve corn even more. In a recent study published in Nature Plants, researchers used gene editing to increase the number of kernels on ears of corn.

To make their super corn, researchers at Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory in New York and the University of Massachusetts used the gene-editing technique CRISPR to tinker with corn kernel numbers. They targeted a group of genes in the maize genome involved in the promotion of stem cell growth. Like in humans, stem cells provide plants with a source of new cells to regenerate damaged or diseased tissue.

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By tweaking one of these genes, ZmCLE7, which acts like a brake to stop stem cell growth, the researchers were able to control the number of kernels the resulting corn produced.

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As the planet faces climate change, land degradation, and an ever-increasing human population, [plant biologist Madelaine] Bartlett thinks gene editing could accelerate crop improvements to help ensure food security.

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