In efforts to help corn production worldwide, scientists have identified over 1,000 genes found in almost 4,500 varieties of maize which are thought to be key to the plant’s environmental adaptation. Researchers say the gene mapping will help in the development of new corn varieties, a resource expected to be in high demand as global warming causes shifts in growing conditions and pushes crops to adapt to changing environments.
Since its domestication in Mexico thousands of years ago, maize has traveled around the world and become a staple food in many countries, thanks mostly to the plant’s supreme adaptability to a wide variety of climates and terrains. Maize is the number one cereal crop worldwide by weight. In Canada, corn is the third largest crop after wheat and canola, the bulk of production coming from Quebec and Ontario.
But how maize will need to adapt to environmental changes over upcoming years is unclear. Weather patterns, soil conditions, precipitation and drought are all expected to diverge from current states due to global warming. Thus, it will be crucial to understand how crucial crops like maize, rice and wheat can be adapted to meet the challenging of a changing world.
“With global climate change over the next century, we can directly use this information to figure out what genes are important,” says Edward Buckler, geneticist at the USDA Agricultural Research Service and senior author of the recent study published in the journal Nature Genetics. “We’re tapping the wisdom of farmers over the last 10,000 years to make the next century’s corn.”
An international team of researchers from the US and Mexico looked at close to 4,500 maize varieties —called landraces— from regions in 35 countries in North, Central and South America and isolated the genes necessary for environmental adaptation. In the end, the adaptive genes numbered over 1,000. “It takes a thousand genes to attune a plant for a particular latitude and the elevation where it is grown,” says Buckler. “That’s what we are mapping here.”
In Canada and the United States, corn has been grown in its genetically modified form since the late 1990s, with the majority of corn production in the two countries now consisting of GM crops. Worldwide, one-third of maize production is genetically modified. In Sub-Saharan Africa, where maize is the food staple for about 900 million people, genetically modified maize is found in states like South Africa, where the majority of maize grown is GM-resistant to the Roundup-Ready herbicide, glyphosate.
Africa seems set to become the battle ground for the clash over GMO crops, as regions of Southern Africa plagued by drought are turning to biotechnology to deliver drought-resistant versions of maize, sorghum and other staples. As reported in the Guardian, while conventional cross-breeding techniques to produce drought resistance are being championed by non-profits like the International Maize and Wheat Improvement Centre and AGRA (with support from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation), global seed corporations Monsanto, Syngenta and DuPont are pushing to become dominant players, both in US and in African production.