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Scientists Release Draft of Corn Genome

posted on February 29, 2008

In a similar hearing in the Senate this week, Secretary of Agriculture Edward Schafer announced new steps to ensure the safety of America's meat supply, including more random inspections of slaughterhouses and immediate audits of plants that supply meat to federal programs. However, Schafer resisted calls from democratic senators for a complete ban on non-ambulatory cattle.

Under current rules, so called "downer" animals may enter the human food chain if they pass an additional USDA inspection. Schafer testified that inspectors ultimately make a judgment and he's convinced the rules are protecting the food supply.

Increasingly though, American agriculture relies less on subjective, human judgment and more on hard science. And this week, scientists involved in a three-year, $32 million study to map the corn genome presented a draft of their findings.

Scientists Release Draft of Corn Genome

The study was led by researchers at Washington University in St. Louis, and assisted by scientists at the Cold Spring Harbor Lab in New York, as well as Arizona State and Iowa State Universities.

Pat Schnable is director of the Center for Plant Genomics at Iowa State University.

Pat Schnable, Iowa State University: "...this is like looking at the maps that Lewis and Clark brought back when they, you know, when Jefferson sent them into the Louisiana Purchase, which included Iowa, went out there, they brought back information, maps and skins of animals and pressed flowers. All of this is information that helped understand what was out there. So, as we look at the corn genome we start looking in there we start seeing clues as to what is out there in the instruction manual."

Funded, in part, by the National Science Foundation, USDA, and the Department of Energy, the study revealed corn DNA is made up of 2.5 billion base pairs and about 60,000 genes-- almost twice the number of genes in humans. The results have been put into a searchable online database. Schnable hopes the data will help researchers all over the world better understand the genetic make-up of corn.

Data for the project was provided by seed companies including Ceres, an energy crop company, Monsanto, the world's leading purveyor of genetically modified seeds, and Dupont's Pioneer Hi-Bred, the world's leading developer and supplier of advanced plant genetics and a major-funder of Market to Market. The work has been applauded by officials with the National Corn Growers Association who expect the research to help produce better hybrids more quickly and reliably.

According to Schnable, just getting the corn genome sequenced isn't the end of the road for the research. More varieties will need to be sequenced so scientists will have a more defined choice when cross-breeding corn for specific traits like weathering global climate change, increasing nutritional value, sequestering carbon, or boosting yields.

Pat Schnable, Iowa State University: "We need more food directly for human consumption, we need more animal feed, we need more agricultural crops for fuel and fiber. So, anything we can do to increase yields in an environmentally sustainable way is a good thing. "

And Schnable went on to point out the implications of sequencing corn go beyond just better methods of cross-breeding. Now that a more complex plant has been mapped, Schnable believes it will be easier to genetically explore other grains like wheat and soybeans.

Pat Schnable, Iowa State University: "What we'd like to be able to do is advise seed companies on which lines aren't worth looking at and letting them focus their energies on, say, the top ten percent."


Tags: agriculture corn Edward Schafer genetic engineering genetics meat news science scientists U.S. Secretary of Agriculture