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Deeper roots mean more robust corn crops

NSF Award:

BREAD: Improving Water Acquisition in Maize with Root Traits that Reduce the Metabolic Cost of Soil Exploration  (Pennsylvania State Univ University Park)

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Corn is a valuable crop across the globe. However, economic, environmental and energy costs associated with corn crop production present a challenge. The greatest cost associated with the crop is nitrogen fertilizer and the greatest risk is drought. Developing corn plants that are less dependent on nitrogen fertilizer and more drought-tolerant will benefit agriculture and the environment. Such crops will also improve food security in developing countries where low soil fertility and drought limit crop production.

To address fertilizer and drought issues, a research team led by Jonathan Lynch at Pennsylvania State University has made three substantial contributions to creating more robust corn crops. They (1) discovered details about corn roots that will allow crops to grow deeper roots and improve drought tolerance and nutrient uptake, thereby dramatically improving drought tolerance and reducing fertilizer requirements; (2) invented a 3-D imaging technique to view root traits and other materials; and (3) identified key genes that control the root traits.

The combination of these three advances will enable plant breeders to develop new varieties of corn and other crops more tolerant of drought and less demanding of nitrogen fertilizer. Farmers and researchers in Malawi are using the root traits in corn breeding as part of this project. Results of this research are leading to improved sustainability and resilience of this important staple crop.

This work is funded through the Basic Research to Enable Agricultural Development (BREAD) program, a partnership between NSF and the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. The project's contributing scientists are from Pennsylvania, Wisconsin and Malawi.



  • corn roots
Deeper roots improve corn's drought tolerance and nutrient uptake efficiency.
Stephen Kirkpatrick, USDA

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