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Iowa Corn: Investing in Research for the Good of Science, Agriculture and the Environment

March 7, 2017

Through the Iowa Corn Promotion Board’s (ICPB) investment in research, Iowa corn farmers continue making strides in sustainably increasing corn plant efficiency while reducing the environmental impact of corn production.

In 2014, ICPB embarked on creating a public, broad-umbrella initiative to translate genomic information for the benefit of growers, consumers and society. The initiative, called Genomes To Fields (G2F), is funded with the Iowa Corn Promotion Board, National Corn Growers Association and now includes 21 states plus Ontario. This program leverages the mapping of the corn genome to identify key corn genetic traits that impact yield and the plant’s ability to respond to environmental stressors to design a better corn plant in the future.

“When the genes of corn were mapped back in 2009, for the first time we could see all the genes in a corn plant,” said Iowa Corn Research and Business Development Committee Chair Curt Mether, a farmer from Logan. “But having the complete corn gene sequenced doesn't tell us anything about what all these genes do in terms of crop growth and production. So, the Iowa Corn Promotion Board has been taking the initiative to do something about this.”

Corn growth and productivity is determined by its genes and how those genes interact with the environmental conditions in which a corn plant is placed, such as temperature, rainfall, soil types, and pests, something researchers refer to as the Genotype x Environment interaction, or GxE. To understand how genes affect corn growth, we need to evaluate this GxE effect for a large number of hybrids (genotypes) grown in a wide range of environments.

At the beginning of the program, Iowa Corn’s Research and Business Development committee funded the Genomes To Field Initiative (aka Phenotyping), with the initial emphasis on the GxE Trial, where hundreds of genotyped corn hybrids grown across dozens of environments in several states, from New York to Arizona to South Dakota to Georgia. The objective was to understand how genes and environments interact to impact corn traits and performance.

“One of the requirements of the committee has always been that the results of this work needs to be public,” explained Mether. “A key step is building an open source data information site for corn research. This past month that finally happened. The 2014 and 2015 data is now publicly available with the 2016 data available to G2F researchers.”

This represents the largest dataset of corn genotype, environmental and phenotypic data that has ever been made available to researchers at universities and agencies such as the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA).

“This knowledge base will assist seed companies in commercializing improved corn hybrids and will advance farmers’ precision farming techniques including the more efficient use of land and the more precise use of pesticides and fertilizers,” Mether said.

But the release of this dataset marks just the beginning, not the end.  Unlike sequencing the corn genome, which was completed in 2009, researchers will never be finished collecting phenotype data and understanding how plants respond to various environmental factors. This dataset represents the beginnings of a resource that will continue to grow and become more valuable over time. It will allow researchers to convert the corn genome sequence into functional knowledge and develop new methods and devices to analyze the relationship between genetic, trait and environmental data to predict performance of plants.

2017 will be the fourth year of the G2F GxE Trials including three new states. The initiative is working closely with Iowa Corn Growers Association in developing a strategy to use with Congress and government agencies to obtain research funding. Funds raised by the Iowa Corn Promotion Board, Illinois Corn and Nebraska Corn boards have been matched by grants from the USDA’s National Institute of Food and Agriculture (USDA‐NIFA) totaling $500,000.

To learn more about ICPB’s research and science funding, please visit: iowacorn.org/research.

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The Iowa Corn Promotion Board (ICPB), works to develop and defend markets, fund research, and provide education about corn and corn products. For more information, visit iowacorn.org.

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