Danforth Center collaborates on more efficient crops

Danforth will collaborate with University of Illinois to identify genetic variants in corn that affect photosyntheis and nitrogen uptake.

The Donald Danforth Plant Science Center announced that it has received a three-year grant from the U.S. Department of Agriculture's National Institute of Food & Agriculture (NIFA) to enhance nitrogen use efficiency (NUE) in plants.

The center will collaborate with the University of Illinois on the $250,000 grant to identify genetic variants affecting photosynthesis and nitrogen uptake.

Genetic improvement of NUE in crop plants will increase yields and reduce the demand for nitrogen-based fertilizer and energy inputs to produce the fertilizer, offering both economic and environmental benefits. Corn is the world’s leading grain crop, used primarily for animal feed, food and bioenergy. Currently, more nitrogen fertilizer is added to U.S. crop fields than the plants can use. The excess nitrogen often ends up in waterways or groundwater supplies and leads to algal blooms, according to the announcement. In developing countries, the expense associated with nitrogen fertilizers limits many small shareholders’ ability to improve their harvest.

"Understanding the mechanisms that underlie the efficient uptake and mobilization of nitrogen fertilizer in plants will enable plant breeders and researchers to develop more efficient crops that will use less fertilizer to produce more yield," Dr. Thomas Brutnell, director of the Enterprise Institute for Renewable Fuels at the Danforth Center, said. "This research will help us meet future global demands for food and energy while preserving the environment."

University of Illinois crop sciences professor Stephan Moose added, "This work builds upon a long history of pioneering research by the University of Illinois on the genetics of nitrogen use in corn. We will now apply our recent discoveries to further optimize the important connections between photosynthesis and nitrogen in driving high corn yields."

The project utilizes emerging technology known as CRISPR/Cas9 to induce a very specific change in in the corn genome.

The new analytical techniques used in this research will support the tracking of carbon and nitrogen movement through the plant, between cells and even within cells. The grant will help further support the understanding of NUE and its impact on plant growth and development.

"Collectively, these tools will provide a level of understanding we have not been able to achieve before and greatly facilitate the translation of these findings to improve agriculture," Brutnell said.

Founded in 1998, the Donald Danforth Plant Science Center is a not-for-profit research institute with a mission to improve the human condition through plant science.

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