Unlocking the 'Magic' Behind Iowa's Corn Crop

Recent news about progress made in effort to map corn's genome is encouraging.

Historically hybrid corn, biotechnology and precision farming have given Iowa's farmers the leading edge in corn production. But the recently released draft of the results of the on-going effort to map the corn genome provides good news about how corn production will be increased in the future.

The purpose of the on-going project by a team of scientists at several universities in the U.S. is to "unlock" corn's genetic code and open the door for monumental improvements in corn production.

Pam Johnson, a farmer from Floyd in northeast Iowa is chair of the Research and Business Development Action Team for the National Corn Growers Association. She is also past chairperson of the Iowa Corn Promotion Board and has been working passionately to keep the corn genome mapping project on track and making progress. She was recently quoted as saying this effort is especially critical at this time in history, when the growing global population looks to corn and other plants to supply food, feed, bioenergy, and biobased materials.

A milestone has been reached

The state of Iowa produces more corn than many countries in the world today. Corn is a vitally important crop, but one that is very complex.

In 1996, the Iowa Corn Promotion Board or ICPB and the National Corn Growers Association started the plant genome initiative with the National Science Foundation. A $40 million appropriation was made in 1997 to the project. Since that time the Iowa Corn Promotion Board has also funded several million dollars in research projects dealing with the corn genome.

Mapping the more than 2.5 billion pairs of letters held within the corn plant has been a daunting task, but the release of a draft sequence a couple weeks ago, covering more than 95% of the genome is an important milestone on the way to unlocking the inner "magic" of corn.

Predictions of 300 bushels per acre

"I believe we are witnessing history in the making," says Rod Williamson, director of research and business development for the ICPB. "There is still research that needs to be done to understand what each gene does in the corn plant. Industry officials are predicting 300 bushels per acre potential when the new genetic improvements are adopted in corn."

Some farmers have already produced 300 bushels per acre in contests on small plots. But he's talking about many farmers in the future being able to achieve averages of 300 bushels per acre or more on entire farms and fields.

"Along with increased yields," says Williamson, "this research improves our ability to work with changing weather, reduce the environmental impact, and truly utilize our biotechnology to more efficiently produce corn to meet the demand for both food and fuel."

The Iowa Corn Promotion Board joined in funding sequencing efforts to enhance biotechnology and increase profitability. Support of this project has been two-fold. It is not only to support the development of input traits for improving efficiency in corn production, but it is also to improve the output traits used in industrial processing like ethanol production and livestock.

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