FAMU/FSU research could yeild big bucks in corn crops

Jun 15, 2012

Did you ever see the mid-80s movie “Children of the Corn”?

It was a Steven King story, so it was creepy and scary.  Much of the action involved homicidal young people who hid out in a big corn field.  But most cornfields are neither creepy or scary.

Agriculture is still Florida’s number two industry, right behind tourism.  And corn makes up a large part of the state’s farm production.  Some cutting-edge research is underway that could make corn even more of a cash crop. And that’s sparked the interest of aspiring food scientists.

 “When I thought about corn, I just thought about tall corn and it all looks the same.  But when you come out here you see, how many types of corn?”, said Nelson Smith, a junior year at Wakulla High School.  Smith wants to go to college and study complex subjects like plant genome mapping.  He’s been hanging out at Florida State University’s research facility as a participant in Florida A&M University’s Forestry and Conservation Education summer program.

Smith is working in a field of corn plants In a field less than four miles away from the state capital, there are nearly a hundred different variations of corn.  Some of the more extreme mutations don’t even look like corn at all. And that’s the point. Researchers are studying to see how genes react to each other and how they get passed down from generation to generation. The goal: to make a better, healthier product.

Florida Stat University Biology Professor Hank Bass  said one of the most intriguing research findings is just how little the corn’s chromosomes need to change before big things happen.

“You change one of those from an adenine to a cytosine – or ‘A’ to a ‘C’ – and you suddenly get a dramatic change in the organism.  Understanding that molecular connection is what we do and we think this sort of provides the fodder for innovation for breeding and technology,” he said.

Bass says it’s the kind of basic research that the big seed companies, like Monsanto, and DuPont, don’t really do much of.  Those firms, he says, have come to depend on facilities like his. The result? Endless possibilities for a product that’s used for everything from energy to food.

 “For instance, there are mutants out here that affect the accumulation of starch.  That’s going to be relevant to fuel ethanol production, corn syrup, corn oil, whatever you want to isolate and purify from the seed.  We have mutations out here that grow tall and some that grow short.  So if you want to breed corn that grows in a different climate under different conditions, some of the genetic material here is useful for that.”

In essence, custom designed varieties of corn for nearly any location and application.  It’s a “Children of the Corn” story with a very happy ending.