Honors and Awards

Grain Gains: Bartlett Awarded $643K to Research Genes Limiting Grain Production

Madelaine Bartlett, associate professor of biology and director of natural history collections, has received a $643,496 grant from the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s National Institute of Food and Agriculture (NIFA) to study genes that limit grain production in maize and related crops.

Maize, sorghum and many millets belong to a subfamily of grasses that share a floral trait that constrains their potential productivity. Though these crops, known as panicoids, contain two flowers, only the upper flower is typically fertile and able to produce grain after pollination.

Madalaine Bartlett
Madelaine Bartlett

Bartlett and her team will use the latest methods in genetics, genomics, computer vision and quantitative phenotyping to study the genes that suppress fertilization in the lower flower and test the hypothesis that a common genetic mechanism regulates that suppression in panicoids.

The project’s findings will represent an important first step in determining the makeup of genes that limit productivity in panicoids and provide fundamental knowledge that has the potential, paired with other advancements, to dramatically improve crop yields. Given the relative ease of genome editing in many grasses, these discoveries can also be transferred to other crops.

There is growing interest worldwide in climate-resilient panicoid crops, including sorghum and proso millet. However, while many millets can tolerate drought, salt and heat, most are not high-yielding and have not been subject to the intensive breeding that has significantly improved U.S. maize yields. This research will be a promising step toward producing more high-yielding, climate-resilient crops.

The project is one of 22 to recently receive NIFA grant funding, totaling nearly $12 million, for research to improve plant production with the goal of enhancing the sustainability and competitiveness of U.S. agriculture.