Grass crops, including maize (corn), sorghum, and many millets share specific traits that impact the fertility of their flowers (contained in specialized branching structures called spikelets), and subsequently their potential productivity.

Spikelets in maize and its relatives contain two flowers, but usually only the upper flower is fertile and can produce a grain. The genes that direct the development of the floral organs (or carpels) that are needed to form grains are suppressed in lower flowers, leading them to be sterile. This growth suppression impacts the productivity and yield of critical crops, like corn.

In the current era of genetic engineering, carpel suppression genes could be impactful candidates for genome editing to improve crop yields. However, only a few genes are known to regulate carpel suppression in grass crops. And scientists still do not know how these genes interact in pathways, and whether these genes have other functions in grass species.

Madelaine Bartlett, associate professor in the Department of Biology, was recently awarded a $643,000 grant from the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) to investigate the mechanisms that limit grain production in crops like corn and millet, with the ultimate goal of improving crop productivity. Bartlett and her team will use state-of-the-art methods in genetics, genomics, computer vision and quantitative phenotyping.

“This funding allows us to discover the core set of genes regulating floral organ development in maize and its relatives, including in emerging crops. Many of these crops are climate resilient. Identifying the genes that impact productivity in these crops could have important translational consequences in developing diverse and sustainable agricultural systems,” she shares.

This project will provide fundamental knowledge for ensuring resilient and prosperous agricultural systems in the U.S. Identifying the genes that control grass crop productivity could accelerate the production of high-yielding, climate-resilient crops that would enhance the long-term sustainability of U.S. food production systems.

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