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Genetic Help on the Way for Flood-Prone Corn

By Linda McGraw
April 26, 1999

April is the cruellest month for farmers when heavy spring rains drown crops. But Agricultural Research Service scientists are working on a built-in genetic life preserver that may help corn survive flooding.

That genetic flood insurance--good news for farmers who face added costs in labor, seed and fertilizer to replant--comes from flood-tolerant corn breeding lines discovered by ARS scientist Martin M. Sachs in Urbana, Illinois.

Sachs, based at the University of Illinois, has identified flood-tolerant South American plants that live up to three times longer under water than most North American corn varieties. He found the flood-resistant corn while screening 400 genetic land races from the International Maize and Wheat Improvement Center in Mexico City. He crossed the water-tolerant lines from South America with normal inbred North American lines. The results: half of the resulting corn plants survived flooding, after the North American parents had died.

Sachs would like to determine the genetic, physiological, biochemical and molecular differences these flood tolerant inbreds have and ultimately isolate the gene or genes involved. So far, he's identified 10 different breeding lines, each of which shows a simple dominant trait for increased flood tolerance.

For now, he uses traditional breeding techniques to cross the desired trait into American corn lines. But he envisions that genetic engineering will allow him to fortify corn with even more flood tolerance from rice.

Sachs is director of ARS' Maize Genetics Cooperation Stock Center, part of the National Plant Germplasm System supported by the U.S. Department of Agriculture. ARS is the chief research agency of the USDA.

Scientific contact: Martin Sachs, ARS University of Illinois, Urbana, Ill., phone (217) 244-0864, fax (217) 333-6064,

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