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Better use of light could help corn in changing climate

Tom J. Bechman cornfield
CAPTURE MORE LIGHT: What will tomorrow’s corn look like compared to this cornfield of today? You would need a crystal ball to know for sure, but here’s a good bet: Plants will be designed to use light better.
Hi-Tech Farming: Plant breeders look at ways to “turn up” genes to increase photosynthesis.

The climate is changing. Jeff Schussler of Schussler Ag Research Solutions says that’s a fact. What’s causing it may be open to debate, but both negative and positive changes can be documented. One of the positive changes is solar brightening, a real phenomenon which means more sunlight is available for corn today compared to 20 years ago, he says. However, to produce enough food to meet future demands worldwide, Schussler says plants like corn could use a boost so they can turn sunlight into sugars more efficiently.

He says one of those boosts could come from overexpression of a gene called zmm28. Schussler was part of a team of over a dozen plant breeders and researchers from Corteva Agriscience that demonstrated that manipulating this gene could increase photosynthesis in corn leaves and increase yield. Their work was published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences in the Nov. 19, 2019, edition. The process involved using transgenic techniques to increase plant growth, photosynthesis capacity and nitrogen utilization.

Are the people working on this project plant breeders, scientists, molecular engineers or all three? The paper includes diagrams that look like computer schematics for electrical wiring for some complex device. Obviously, plant breeding today is more than just shaking pollen from one plant onto the silks of another inbred line.

Meanwhile, Bayer already introduced short-stature corn — smaller plants, not larger plants — in parts of Mexico. Early work on these traits is underway under controlled stewardship in the U.S.

Exactly what tomorrow’s corn will look like remains uncertain. Shorter? Taller? A different shape? Odds are good that no matter what corn plants look like, they will use light much more efficiently.

Withstand warm nights

Another expected and already-observed effect of climate change is warmer nights. Higher nighttime temperatures can put a lid on corn yields because they affect respiration and burn sugars wastefully. Two researchers at the University of Florida, Camila Ribeiro and Mark Settles, used a novel genetic engineering technique to develop corn that is productive even when nights are warm. It proved itself in the field in 2020 testing, producing 40% more in plots under higher temperatures compared to regular corn.

If the Corteva crew are scientists and engineers, these researchers are physiologists and chemists. The details are complicated, but in layman’s terms, they found a way to move two enzymes that can help a third enzyme continue working even when it’s hot by changing where the first two enzymes are located.

While they used engineered genes, they believe plant breeders could use traditional, nontransgenic techniques to screen for corn plants that could better adapt to higher nighttime temperatures.

New name in herbicides

Katagon herbicide from Helm Agro US Inc. is now registered. The company bills it as a next-generation HPPD premix herbicide for postemergence applications in corn. It has two modes of action, a low use-rate formulation and a wide application window. The active ingredients are tolpyralate and nicosulfuron. Spokespeople say Katagon delivers highly effective control of broadleaf weeds, plus enhanced grass control and longer-lasting residual activity when tank-mixed with atrazine. Visit discoverhelm.com.

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