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Developing drought-resistant corn.

Purdue University is fighting malnutrition in the African countries of Niger and Sudan by developing new drought-resistant strains of sorghum, but corn farmers in the American Midwest may benefit from the research as well. "This is a unique case where the results of our sorghum research overseas will have a tangible impact on the Midwest and the rest of the United States as we use the knowledge and techniques we derive ... to develop new varieties of corn," indicates Gebisa Ejeta, professor of agronomy.

Sorghum evolved in central Africa, where water shortages were quite common. Corn, on the other hand, evolved in Central America, where drought rarely was a problem, and it lacks the ability of sorghum to survive severe water stress. By using the technique of genetic engineering, scientists now are able to transfer traits from one plant species to another. "These new genetic techniques open up a whole new ballgame in crop improvement," explains John Axtell, Lynn Distinguished Professor of Agronomy. "The real problem now is deciding what traits you want to transfer now that we have the technology."

He points out that transferring drought-resistance traits from sorghum to corn is a natural progression. "No other crop is as close to corn as sorghum. If you wanted to work on drought-resistant corn, you would begin by studying sorghum. Every sorghum line has more drought resistance than any existing line of corn

Sorghum protects itself during drought with a waxy substance on its leaves that reduces water evaporation. Corn doesn't produce this wax," Ejeta notes. "But we have good physiological evidence that a single gene causes wax production. If we were to move this gene into the corn plant and increase drought resistance by just 1 0%, that would mean that many dry years would no longer be considered drought years as far as corn was concerned."
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Publication:USA Today (Magazine)
Date:Dec 1, 1993
Words:307
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