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USDA, Universities to Establish New Corn Genetics Center

By Ben Hardin
January 15, 1999

WASHINGTON, Jan. 15--Corn could become an even higher yielding food and feed crop in the 21st century, now that U.S. Department of Agriculture scientists and university collaborators are establishing a new maize genetics research center.

Eileen T. Kennedy, USDA Deputy Under Secretary for Research, Education, and Economics announced the center's establishment today. The center, in facilities at the University of Missouri-Columbia, is being funded through a five-year, $11.1 million grant from the National Science Foundation.

"The new maize genetics research center will expand our scientists' capacity to improve corn as a food and feed crop through harnessing biotechnology and computers to crack the plant’s genetic code," Kennedy said. "Corn has been bred for millennia. Its improvement through hybridization is one of the triumphs of agriculture in this century. Now, research at the new center will help corn improvement take off again in the next century."

On Sunday, Jan. 17, Kennedy will speak at a workshop on federal funding of plant genome research at the Plant and Animal Genome VII Conference, held Jan. 17-21 in San Diego, Calif. More than 1,000 scientists and others from around the country and the world have registered to attend. USDA is co-sponsoring the conference along with universities and nonprofit and industry groups.

"Genome" refers to the complete set of the genes of an organism. An estimated 50,000 genes control corn's growth, development, yield and grain qualities. "Maize" is the name used for corn worldwide.

The maize project includes collaboration among three scientists of USDA's Agricultural Research Service at Columbia, Mo., with three colleagues at the University of Missouri, and scientists at Clemson University and University of Georgia. ARS geneticist Edward H. Coe, Jr., at ARS' Plant Genetics Research Unit in Columbia envisions the project resulting in corn that:

  • Is tailored to produce special food and industrial uses,
  • Resists environmental stresses,
  • Provides improved animal nutrition,
  • Can be produced more efficiently with less agrichemical input, and
  • Produces higher yields, so there will be less reliance on environmentally fragile lands for adequate food supplies.

Besides the maize project, six other ARS scientists will participate with university researchers in other genome research projects awarded NSF grants totaling $31.6 million. NSF announced these grants, and others, in the fall of 1998.

“We aim to keep U.S. leadership in genome research on the cutting edge,” said Kennedy. “The grants will help ensure that large amounts of genetic materials and information are shared throughout the research community after they are developed by scientists in public institutions.”

Coe and his University of Missouri colleagues first started working on an informal maize genome map database in the 1970's. In 1991, USDA formalized the database. By 2002, the scientists hope to develop a map containing information on all the corn genes.

To detail the structure and function of maize genes, the scientists will create and research a vast library of bacteria cell lines. Each cell line will have a chromosome containing a different fragment of DNA from maize.

The researchers will organize a maize DNA database to help scientific colleagues compare corn with sorghum, rice and other cereal grains. The comparisons may lay groundwork for simultaneously improving the crops through biotechnology.

Other ARS participation in the NSF-funded genome grants includes:

  • In St. Paul, Minn., an ARS geneticist will help map corn genes in special oat lines. Each line contains an additional chromosome from corn.
  • Scientists at the University of California, Berkeley and at the ARS/University of California Plant Gene Expression Center (PGEC) in Albany, Calif., are developing methods to make recombinant maize chromosomes in rodent cell lines.
  • ARS scientists at the PGEC and at Urbana, Ill., along with colleagues at five universities, will help research mutations in corn caused by a mobile genetic element called a transposon.
  • An ARS-PGEC scientist is working with scientists at Stanford University and the University of Pennsylvania, Philadelphia, to finish detailing the structure of chromosome 1 of Arabidopsisthaliana. This small plant in the mustard family is used as a “lab rat” for researching genes in other plants.
  • At Ames, Iowa, an ARS geneticist will participate in research on the structure and function of soybean genes.

Scientific contact: Edward H. Coe, Jr., ARS Plant Genetics Research Unit, Columbia, Mo., phone (573) 882-2768, fax (573) 884-7850,

During the Plant and Animal Genome VII Conference, Coe may be reached from Jan. 17-21 at the Town and Country Hotel, phone (619) 291-7131. The number for the conference registration desk in the hotel's Atlas Foyer is (619) 291-7131, ext. 3939.

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