Pity the corn plant. Its tall, gangly, inefficient architecture makes it an environmental laggard among plants, one that sucks up water and fertilizer while leaching out gobs of nutrients that run off in rainfall, polluting surface waters from the Midwest to the Gulf of Mexico.
But a plant geneticist at Purdue University aims to raise the corn plant's stature in a more carbon-sensitive world by lowering its height and its need for water and nutrients.
In a greenhouse in West Lafayette, Ind., Burkhard Schulz and his colleagues have created an estimated 15,000 dwarf mutant corn plants that stand only a few feet tall but pack all the nutritional content of a conventional corn plant.
The effect, Schulz said, is that "the kernel yield you get from the plant is more or less unchanged, but the biomass of the entire plant is reduced by more than half."
The alteration, which can be achieved with chemical fungicide treatments or by manipulating the plant's genes, should allow the plant to reach maturity with less water, less fertilizer and less risk of damage from wind, hail, drought or other acts of nature.
If the technology can be refined to allow for large-scale breeding and seed development, such dwarf corn plants could revolutionize the global food chain by allowing maize to be grown in more hostile climates. It could also greatly improve yields in existing corn-growing regions of the world where food security remains a major problem.
Mitch Tuinstra, a professor of plant breeding and genetics at Purdue, likened Schulz's work with corn to what Norman Borlaug did for the development of high-yield wheat crops in the 1960s and 1970s. Borlaug received the Nobel Peace Prize in 1970 for helping to promote world peace by easing food crises around the world.
Tuinstra noted that other crops, notably rice, have undergone similar yield transformations thanks to advanced plant genetics and breeding, but that corn has remained largely unchanged -- until now.
A plant for 'dire' circumstances
"In many cases, the varieties that are grown in countries of Africa, Asia and South America are very tall," Tuinstra said. "One way these plants can be more efficient in their use of resources is clearly going to be changing the plant architecture of maize. The significance of Burkhard's work is that he's pointing out new biochemical pathways and using a unique biochemical system to do that."
A hardier corn plant could also bode well for well-established row crop areas, including portions of the U.S. Corn Belt, where changing climate conditions are producing environmental stressors such as prolonged drought. It also could allow corn to be grown in regions where it currently is not, including drier areas traditionally used for wheat cultivation or livestock grazing.
One of the keys to making dwarf corn crops is finding a way to "feminize" the plant by removing steroids that produce large amounts of pollen. Those steroids are also responsible for the greater biomass production of conventional corn plants.
Schulz, who hails from Germany and completed his doctorate at the Free University of Berlin, said there are several obstacles to overcome in moving the research forward, including refining the genetic sequencing to keep a corn plant small without compromising its food value.
Also, he said, "There are a million different considerations that seed companies and farmers would have before they would start implementing this kind of new technology."
Assuming such challenges can be met, Schulz said the dwarf corn mutant could become a transformational plant for farmers and seed companies.
"They all know that they need something like this," he said. "They're looking for new varieties that can be grown under circumstances that are a bit more dire than they are right now."