New finding in drought-related plant research

Plant research provides greater insight at a particularly crucial time for many drought-stricken states.

DuPont Pioneer announced today its scientists have made a significant advancement in developing corn plants that successfully withstand drought stress.  In an upcoming edition of the scientific publication, Plant Biotechnology Journal, Pioneer scientists reveal a new finding that higher yielding corn plants succeed under drought conditions when naturally occurring ethylene stress hormone levels in the plant are reduced through a transgene. The study, “Transgenic Alteration of Ethylene Biosynthesis Increases Grain Yield in Maize under Field Drought-Stress Conditions” by Jeff Habben and colleagues is the most in-depth research effort of its kind reported to date in peer-reviewed scientific literature.

“This advancement is particularly crucial at a time when the U.S. is experiencing a historic drought in places like California, and much of the world is worried about the continued availability of water to grow food crops, ” said Jerry Flint, vice president for Biotech Affairs and Regulatory at DuPont Pioneer. “The new advances in drought tolerant corn reflect the DuPont Pioneer commitment to identifying sustainable solutions to increase food availability to meet the needs of the people today, without compromising the ability of future generations to do the same.”

The Pioneer research spanned testing in multiple locations in numerous genetic backgrounds over two years. Jeff Habben, scientist and lead author of the article explained that corn breeders at Pioneer have been developing hybrids that are productive under drought stress conditions for more than 80 years, starting its first drought-specific breeding program in York, Neb. in the mid-1950s.  This effort has been very successful in generating germplasm with improved drought tolerance and scientists are now achieving a better understanding of the underlying mechanisms that contribute to this productivity.

Importantly, the identified transgenic approach has the additional benefit of enhanced nitrogen use efficiency, resulting in another potential management tool for farmers. Renee Lafitte, a fellow author, who has evaluated tropical corn stated, “It’s not just about improving productivity for farmers, we also need to maintain and improve sustainability of our land and water resources.  We believe that transgenes, in combination with superior hybrids and agronomic management, are the tools that can help farms be more sustainable and productive.”

Habben further discussed the study’s findings by noting that ethylene is a stress hormone prevalent in almost all plants, but in highly variable levels depending on plant type, plant tissue, and stress conditions. “We’ve always believed that corn plants are too conservative in their response to drought and readily terminate kernels or only partially fill the ear when drought hits,” explained Habben, “so we are working to help the crop get through critical developmental stages by modulating ethylene levels to maintain improved yield stability.”

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