Despite its fruitful adaptations, the crop has gotten its share of flack for consuming precious water and nutrient resources, especially as its acreage has increased to meet biofuel and animal feed demands. Many behind the project, however, assert that this new knowledge will help create varieties that will be more environmentally sound and even more specially tuned for each location (being more drought tolerant or requiring less nitrogen, for example). And more corn could mean more big business in the U.S., which already grows some 44 percent of the world's supply (and is also the cereal's biggest consumer). This year alone, the country's 87 million acres of corn are expected to produce about 13 billion bushels, which could bring in more than $3 billion.
Aside from potential for fueling the economy, corn could play an important role in feeding the growing global population. An extra 2.3 billion people could mean a 70 percent jump in food demand by 2050, according to United Nations estimates. Having now surmounted the corn challenge gives researchers confidence to tackle even more complex crop genomes, such as wheat and barley—other potential weapons in fighting global hunger.
Clues from the corn project may have implications for medical research. Wilson, who is a geneticist, also examines human DNA. "Cancer genomes are difficult to figure out in some of their complexities, as well," he says. "I think there are a lot of mini tour de forces in the corn genome that we can use for looking at human disease."