Moving Forward 

Like global warming and other slow but critical phenomena, one of the issues looming steadily larger is providing enough food to feed billions of humans. It has been stated by agronomists, realtors and anthropologists that there is no more open land to purchase for grand scale farming. Conflicting with this is the need to restore much of the biosphere that has been destroyed by human practices. In short, how can humans increase food supply in a world that shrinks for many reasons? In this month’s issue Science Magazine reports a breakthrough that may significantly improve crop value for grains:

“When farmers in ancient times harvested their crops, some saved the seeds produced by the best performing plants and sowed them the following year. Gradually, this selection led to better and better results, such as increasing the size and number of kernels of maize—traits that helped pave the path to modern corn.

Now, a team led by researchers in China has identified a single gene behind this crucial productivity boost in maize and linked it to early improvements in rice harvests as well.

In 2004, maize geneticist and breeder Li Jiangsheng of China Agricultural University (CAU) began to explore the genetics of teosinte, the puny wild ancestor of maize, which early farmers domesticated and bred to create edible corn. One big change: Whereas teosinte has just two rows of kernels, modern maize has more than a dozen. To understand what changed genetically, Li and colleagues spent years creating an experimental intermediate type of maize that has six rows.

By mapping genetic markers, Li and an even larger team identified a single gene that influences the number of rows of kernels in this lab-grown corn. They called the gene KRN2, for kernel row number.”

What is new that just one gene can be manipulated to increase rows of kernels. It is highly likely that all grasses, e.g., wheat, can be made to grow larger amounts of grain. Imagine the global increase in productivity if each ear of corn, each rice and wheat caryopse increased its yield by twenty percent! Good news!


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