A genetic variation makes it possible for corn to grow in soil that contains high levels of aluminum, a chemical that is toxic to many plants.
Approximately 30% of the world’s total land is too acidic to support crop production, but certain strands of corn growing in tropical and subtropical areas have three copies of a particular gene that make them more tolerant.
The triplicate gene may ultimately be used to breed or genetically modify plants to adapt to soil containing high levels of aluminum.
“Identifying genes that make plants more tolerant of aluminum is very critical for farmers growing crops where productivity is suboptimal due to acidic soil,” says Matias Kirst, assistant professor in the College of Agricultural and Life Sciences at the University of Florida.
In plants, tolerance to aluminum is a phenotype — a trait such as growth, physiology, and yield. It has been long suspected that multiple gene copies determine certain phenotypes, but this is the first actual proof, Kirst says.
“This is the first time copy number variation has been shown to affect a phenotype in plants. From now on, people will be paying more attention to this type of variation to identify and explain traits.”
Published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, the findings suggest that the changes in gene copy number may be a rapid evolutionary response to new environments or climate change.
The fact that genome changes are still happening today, after the domestication of maize, is relevant, says lead author Lyza Maron, a research associate at Cornell University.
“That has implications for adaptation. It’s important, more than ever, that we can breed crops in a changing environment.”
Source: University of Florida
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