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Genes for drought-tolerance, aflatoxin may mingle to boost corn production

COLLEGE STATION Scientists plan to put two and two together in a study that will likely yield improved U.S. corn quality and yields.

Two traits that impact corn will be examined by two researchers hoping to use basic scientific discoveries to improve products at the farm level.

Drought tolerance and aflatoxin resistance are the targets of the study by Texas AgriLife Research scientists who have been awarded a $500,000 grant for the project by the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

The idea is to use basic science which identified the drought- and aflatoxin-related genes in the lab of Dr. Michael Kolomiets and apply them in corn breeding through the expertise of Dr. Seth Murray. Kolomiets is a plant pathologist and Murray, the project's lead investigator, is a corn genetics researcher.

"We plan to use basic knowledge we learned from previous studies and translate that through breeding corn for drought tolerance and aflatoxin resistance," Kolomiets said.

The "basic knowledge" stems from discoveries Kolomiets has made in researching a 13-member family of genes called LOX, or lipoxygenase.

He said one LOX family member is connected to a plant's drought response while another is linked to aflatoxin development.

"A geneticist basically has to break something to see how it works," Kolomiets said. "So in this case, we were able to shut down each gene in the lab to decipher what its function is for the plant biology and the plant's ability to respond to environmental stresses."

It seems that one of the LOX genes is "hijacked" when droughty conditions are ripe for the Aspergillus fungi to ride into the plant with its toxins. Yet another member of the gene family is the reason for plant aging and death once the plant is under severe drought stress.

Lipids the fats and oils in plants like corn, soybeans, peanuts, tree nuts and cotton are sought out, it seems, by pathogens like fungi. So, Kolom

Contact: Kathleen Phillips
Texas A&M AgriLife Communications

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