Cornell University News Release

24th November, 2010

NSF grants boost Cornell efforts to improve rice, corn crops

FOR RELEASE:  Nov. 24, 2010


Contact: John Carberry
Phone:  (607) 255-5353

Cell: (607) 227-0727



NSF grants boost Cornell efforts to improve rice, corn crops


ITHACA, N.Y. – Two teams based at Cornell University backed by multimillion-dollar grants from the National Science Foundation are turning to the frontiers of genetic sciences to help solve an age-old problem – how to make corn and rice crops hardier and more productive.

Susan McCouch, a professor of plant breeding and genetics, is leading a team that received a four-year, $6.9 million NSF grant to explore natural variation in wild and cultivated rice. The goal: accelerate the process of plant breeding to enhance the productivity and sustainability throughout the world.

Wild rice varieties that have adapted to changing environments over thousands of years and contain genetic structures, known as “alleles,” that have been bred out of cultivated varieties. Using wild rice samples from 14 countries, researchers will evaluate the range of genetic diversity using next-generation sequencing. The most divergent wild samples will be used to make crosses with cultivated varieties to identify plants that can resist stresses such as drought, salt, acid soils, extreme temperatures and disease. The work also will identify the genes from the wild materials that confer these characteristics. The project will make new lines of cultivated rice that incorporate beneficial wild rice traits available to the breeding and genetics communities.

“Wild ancestors embody more genetic variation than cultivars, and they are a rich source of alleles that are useful for breeding,” said McCouch. “Our work has shown that wild alleles can enhance the productivity of modern rice cultivars by 10 to 20 percent, and we are only beginning to explore this potential.”

Thomas Brutnell, a scientist at Boyce Thompson Institute on Cornell's campus and adjunct associate professor in plant breeding and genetics, is leading a team that received a three-year, $2.5 million NSF Plant Genome Research grant to develop a way for “Ds transposons,” or jumping genes, to knock out other genes at desired locations. By knocking out specific genes, corn researchers can better understand that gene's purpose. Such a tool could help scientists understand how drought or salt tolerance works, or find lines that are more efficient at water and nitrogen uptake.

Brutnell and colleagues will also create a public website where other researchers can look up a gene of interest and scan for the closest insertion point for Ds. The project includes a community service component – any researcher will be able order corn lines from BTI that include a jumping gene inserted near a candidate gene, or request that the Brutnell lab screen for Ds insertions in their favorite gene.



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