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Project Documentation & Protocols: Maize Gene Discovery Project: Education:
Why Maize Genes Matter

Contents: Maize Gene Discovery | The Challenge of Maize Genetics | Why Discover Maize Genes? | Finding Genes
Linking Genes to Function | Creating Databases | Building a Storehouse | Accomplishments | What's Next? | Glossary

Seven thousand years ago, an ear of corn resembled a segmented green bean the size of an index finger. The kernels were each enclosed within a pod that humans could not digest, and each plant produced multiple small ears and tassels that were challenging to harvest. Domestication has transformed maize from an inedible grass to the top grain-producing crop in the U.S., generating $30 billion annually from about 80 million acres.

Maize is the most important crop in the United States. Over 80 million acres are used to grow maize anually, a scale of production more than double that of any other crop. Maize products produce about $30 billion every year, through varied uses including food, rubber, plastic, fuel, and clothing. In addition to domestic uses, maize is our largest crop export. Also, maize is a perfect "template" organism for studying the biology of monocotyledonous plants, particularly cereals (grains), which provide over 70% of the total human caloric intake worldwide.

Early Native Americans of Southern Mexico initiated the dramatic conversion of maize into its modern form by selectively cultivating plants with a thin-skinned pod, more rows of kernels, and fewer, larger ears. Maize breeding continues today, using the tools of modern genetics and molecular biology. The primary goal, as in ancient times, is to increase the production of this wholesome grain.

Just a handful of genes controlled the most significant evolutionary changes in the corn plant's shape and form. But researchers believe that hundreds or even thousands of genes furthered the evolution of maize . making it produce bigger ears, changing kernels' nutrient content, improving the plant's resistance to disease, and adapting it to modern agricultural methods.

The molecular biological techniques developed and used by the Maize Gene Discovery project (MGD) help researchers identify important genes and understand their function both alone and in combination. Through these efforts, researchers will get a grasp on how to improve maize productivity, resistance to disease, and environmental adaptability. The knowledge gained has the potential to help scientists discover ways to improve not only maize yields, but also that of related cereal grains that share maize's heritage.

    Knowing maize genes provides a foundation for improving maize and other cereal crops by

  • Increasing yields
  • Boosting resistance to pests and diseases
  • Enhancing plants' environmental adaptability
  • Augmenting plants' nutritional content
  • Tailoring plants' to suit modern agricultural techniques

For more information about maize, check out:
Why is Corn Important:
The Maize Page:

Katherine Miller, a freelance science writer, contributed the text for this page to the Maize Gene Discovery Project. You can reach her at .

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