Oct. 27, 1997, was a big day for corn.
That was the date the National Plant Genome Initiative was announced. The historic research effort to map the corn genome - supported and shepherded by the National Corn Growers Association - has resulted in significant economic and environmental dividends for farmers and society at large.
The gene mapping effort, which ran parallel to the mapping of the human genome, opened up a new frontier for corn that is still being explored today, according to Pam Johnson, a Floyd, Iowa farmer who served as the Chairperson of NCGA’s Research and Business Development Action Team and later as NCGA president.
“The NPGI didn’t just build a bridge between scientific discovery and real-world solutions for corn, it laid the groundwork for a new interstate highway of discovery,” Johnson said. “Corn continues to be one of the most important crops for our nation and this will likely continue given the vision of early NCGA leaders and the large coalition they helped forge.”
NPGI has funded more than $1.5 billion of genomic research to date and the undertaking continues to send ripples through the scientific community and agriculture.
“Corn became the primary focus of the broader plant genomics project because of its economic significance and because of its complexity. The theory is if we could crack the secrets of corn, the knowledge gained could be applied to many other plants,” said Rodney Williamson, director of research and development for Iowa Corn Growers Association. “The idea of sequencing the corn genome was considered an immense and daunting task because it has one of the of the most complex genomes of any known organism. But we continue to see the payoff.”
At 2.5 billion base pairs covering 10 chromosomes, this genome's size is comparable to that of the human genome which explains why the data generated from the gene mapping will keep scientists sorting and exploring for decades to come, says Williamson, who was part of the group in 1997 that threw down the gauntlet challenging the scientific community.
The new, emerging picture of corn helps researchers better understand its evolution and history. The crop was domesticated from a Central American grass called teosinte some 10,000 years ago. Much of the genetic diversity of maize, however, reaches nearly five million years back.
“Today we are still investigating what each of the genes does with a new initiative called Genomes to Fields. It’s a big puzzle that we don’t have a complete map for yet, but the potential benefits and advances are mind-boggling,” Johnson said. “The data we have contains answers like the best way to adapt corn to different climates, develop more efficient corn plants, use less energy growing it, sequester more carbon and increase the supply of food and feed.”
Williamson says the people in the nondescript hotel meeting room in 1997 contended the completion of the maize genome sequence would change agriculture and it has. Things such as increased breeding efficiency, streamlined delivery of new traits, discovering enhancements of properties such as drought tolerance, and a better overall understanding of the crop has enhanced corn's position as the ideal crop for food, feed, fuel and industrial uses.
According to the USDA, corn production in the U.S. has grown from roughly 9 billion bushels in 1997 when NPGI began to more than 15 billion bushels today. At the same time, the value of the U.S. crop has grown from $25 billion to more than $51 billion.