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Photo: Geneticist Ed Buckler measures a maize ear for statistical analysis. Link to photo information

Read: more on the topic in Agricultural Research

From Corn-Bred Statistics to High-Tech Breeding

By Judy McBride
February 9, 2001

Plant geneticist Ed Buckler with the Agricultural Research Service in Raleigh, N.C., is applying statistics to corn genes. Within three years, Buckler expects to zero in on the exact base changes--or mutations--across 100 broadly diverse corn lines that could help make the grain more profitable to farmers.

Without sequencing the genes in each corn line and then applying statistics, plant geneticists may select the desired gene only 10 percent of the time, compared to 95 percent of the time with the approaches Buckler is developing.

In 1999, U.S. corn reaped an average of only $1.90 per bushel. With such a low price, farmers need varieties that thrive with the lowest chemical inputs, stand up straight under wind and rain and produce grain with the highest nutrient value for animal feed.

Buckler is among six scientists nationwide involved in the Maize Evolutionary Genomics Project, funded by the National Science Foundation. Ultimately, breeders or genetic engineers will be able to select from the wide trait variations among these 100 corn lines to produce hardier plants or grain with better protein. But first, they must know which mutations on which genes control a desired trait.

There are usually hundreds of mutations on each of the genes connected with a trait. But only one or two specific changes may actually have any effect on the trait in question. Finding the exact bases that contribute to a trait of interest is like driving around an unfamiliar city without a map, trying to find specific addresses--unless one applies statistical associations.

Buckler’s group is in the first wave of researchers to associate natural base diversity with trait variation in plants using statistical methods. So he is having to adapt statistics developed for human genetic research and to create some new equations in the process.

Once developed, the methodology can be used for any type of plant or fungus--even for humans.

Read more on the topic in the February issue of Agricultural Research magazine.

ARS is the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s main scientific research agency.

Scientific contact: Edward S. Buckler, ARS Plant Science Research Unit, Raleigh, N.C.; phone (919) 513-1475, fax (919) 856-4816,