James and the Giant Corn Genetics: Studying the Source Code of Nature

March 2, 2010

The Most Studied Genes of Maize (and why we love kernel phenotypes)

Filed under: Genetics,Plant breeding,Plants — Tags: , , , , , — James @ 12:41 pm

Unique citations determined from papered linked to from MaizeGDB gene locus pages. Images of c1 and y1 segregating years by Gerald Neuffer and made available through MaizeGDB.

* = tied for number of citations

** = some mutant alleles have kernel phenotypes.

If you want to become one of the famous mutant corn genes, it helps if you have an effect that is visible in corn kernels instead of only from fully grown plants.

And here is why:

  • A geneticist could determine that the version of c1 that creates yellow kernels is recessive to the version that creates purple kernels just from looking at the ear of corn on left.
  • Furthermore, they could tell you that both the male parent (the plant that provided the pollen) and the female parent (the plant on which the ear of corn grew) were both heteryzygous for the c1 genes (they each had one dominant version of the genes and one recessive version), and therefore the corn kernels the parent plants were grown from were both purple.
  • They would know with certainty that all of the yellow kernels contain two recessive versions of the c1 gene.
  • While they couldn’t predict with absolute certainty whether a specific purple corn kernel on that ear carried two dominant versions of the c1 gene or one dominant and one recessive version, they would know there was a 1/3 chance that kernel has two dominant copies, and a 2/3 chance it had one dominant and one recessive copy.
  • That geneticist could make all sorts of predictions about what ears would look like in future generations depending on what colors of corn kernels were planted and which plants were mated with each other.

All this from a single picture of an ear of corn. For a phenotype seen in corn plants but not in kernels (like Knotted1), a geneticist would have to plant a row or more of corn seeds from an ear and examine the growing plants to get the same quantity of information.

And that is why mutations with kernel phenotypes have been so popular over a century of maize genetics research.

February 27, 2010

Corn Smut

Filed under: food,Plants — Tags: , , , — James @ 12:13 pm

Corn Smut photo: oceandesetoiles, flickr (click to see photo in its original context)

And no that doesn’t mean corn pornography*. Corn smut, or Ustilago maydis, is a fungus that infects corn plants. It’s an old acquantance from my days working in the field. We always used to tell the new hires that corn smut was a rare delicacy in some countries (as we’d been told ourselves), but this was in the days before iPhones so until recently I never actually checked on this bit of received wisdom.

Turns out this particular bit of knowledge was true:

The immature galls, gathered two to three weeks after an ear of corn is infected, still retain moisture and, when cooked, have a flavor described as mushroom-like, sweet, savory, woody, and earthy.

More corn smut. Photo: moskatexugo, flickr (click to see photo in its original context)

I haven’t been able to figure out what the trade off in nutrition is between the ear of corn that is produced by a normal plant and the fungal galls that can be harvested from a plant infected with corn smut. I’d imagine corn smut provides more (and more complete) protein than an ear of corn (assuming corn smut is nutritionally similar to mushrooms.) But what’s the comparison in number of calories? The fungus is certainly sold at a higher price pound for pound.

My renewed interest in corn smut comes courtesy of a new paper** that came out in PLoS Biology describing how the fungus steals energy from infected corn plants without triggering the corn’s usual anti-fungal defenses. It’s an interesting read, you can check out the paper itself since PLoS Biology is open access, or Diane Kelley’s summary at “Science Made Cool.”

I’d seen a number of talks recently about another fungal parasite, powdery mildew in Arabidopsis, but somehow it’s much easier to focus on this stuff now that I can connect it back to corn. Even mammalian systems can be interesting*** once the make that connection.

*Please PLEASE don’t let that phrase start showing up in the search terms people use to find my site!

**Wahl R, Wippel K, Goos S, Kämper J, Sauer N (2010) A Novel High-Affinity Sucrose Transporter Is Required for Virulence of the Plant Pathogen Ustilago maydis. PLoS Biol 8(2): e1000303. doi:10.1371/journal.pbio.1000303

***The talk I’m practicing for Monday actually uses an example of a pheromone receptor in new world monkeys that was lost 23 million years ago in old world monkeys (including us humans).

February 22, 2010

How many maize/corn genes have actually been studied? (Not a lot)

Filed under: Genetics,Plants,research stories — Tags: , , , , — James @ 4:42 pm

When the maize genome paper came out last November (see the summary of this blog’s maize day coverage) it included information on 32,690 genes within the maize genome.  These were the genes which the researchers involved in sequencing the genome were very confident really were genes. And by themselves those 30,000+ genes put the maize genome way ahead of our own. Of course EVERY plant genome ever sequenced has contained more genes than we do, so you’d think by now this wouldn’t be news any more. We’re not the most genetically complex creatures on the planet, and we’ll just have to learn to live with that fact.

But where was I? Oh yeah, gene counts. 32,690 high confidence genes*. Of those, how many have been studied individually? (more…)

February 13, 2010

Plant Links of the Day: Diverse Citrus, Extinct Cucurbits, and more

Filed under: Link Posts,Plants — Tags: , — James @ 9:27 am

When I woke up (which yes, was only a couple hours ago, but remember I’m on pacific time) I found a whole bunch of interesting plant links waiting in my RSS reader, and I thought I’d pass along a few to you guys.

Keith Robinson writing over at Omics! Omics! posted Celebrating Citrus where he catelogs some of the diversity available to him from local grocery stores before pointing out a citrus review article that suggests all that diversity can be traced back to only three wild species and wraps it up by pointing out the project to sequence the sweet orange genome.

Imagine if you could have a whole series of clementine-like fruits, with the size & easy peeling characteristics but with the whole range of other citrus flavors and colors genetically grafted in — cara cara clementines and blood clementines and ruby red clementines and perhaps even sweet lemontines and key clemenlimes.

Highly recommended.

The Biogeography of Darwin’s Gourd is a post I discovered through research blogging (speaking of which I should really write another entry that meets their standards some day). The gourd of the title is Sicyos villosus, a cucurbit (the group of plants that includes squashes, melons, and pumpkins) collected by Darwin from one of the islands in the Galapagos the better part of two centuries ago … and never again recorded by science. At this point the dried sample collected by Darwin may be the only existence the species ever lived:

The analysis of the cucurbit’s DNA, extracted from the seed samples taken by Darwin, revealed that S. villosus is closest in relation to cucurbits in North America and Mexico. The species probably diverged roughly 4 mya, when the Galapagos were still geologically young. Dispersal was not human in origin, meaning long distance from the mainland, potentially from its spiny fruits stuck to birds, the authors suggest.

How cool is it that we can learn so much from a single sample of a species that has otherwise vanished from the earth?

Finally, by way of DailyKos, comes a pointer to this valentine’s day themed article, clearly written for the non-scientist, where a summary written by me seems superfluous given the title: Sex, Drugs, and Paleo-botany! And yes, the exclamation point is in the original title as well.

February 8, 2010

The Taste of Tomatoes + Tomato Mutagenesis

Filed under: agriculture,Feeding the world,Genetics,Plants — Tags: , , , — James @ 4:21 pm

An anonymous indian tomato vendor in Chennai, Tamal Nadu. photo mckaysavage, flickr (click to see photo in it's original context)

First, since I didn’t explicitly state it in my previous post, the paper on the longer lasting tomatoes developed by India’s National Institute for Plant Genome Research didn’t report any data on how the RNAi knock-down tomatoes actually taste.* The tomatoes are nearly twice as firm as tomatoes in which these genes are NOT knocked down, so it’s possible they’d seem unpleasantly crunchy, I don’t know how doubling the firmness of a tomato translates into the feeling when a person bites into one.

On the other hand, if the tomatoes do turn out to be tasty and delicious, it’s quite possible the trait could be replicated without genetic engineering. And if that turns out to be true, it’s absolutely the approach anyone developing longer lasting farmers to Indian farmers, or farmers anywhere, should take (for why I’m saying this, check out the bit in bold further into this post). (more…)

February 6, 2010

Scientists at India’s NIPGR Create a Longer-Lasting Tomato (Studying The Regulation of Fruit Ripening)

Filed under: agriculture,biology,Genetics,Plants — Tags: , , , , — James @ 6:24 pm


Author’s note: This would seem to be the week for vegetables I hated as a kid. Yesterday was onion, today tomato, if there’s a story about brinjal/eggplant in the next few days we’ll have hit all the big ones. 😉

Ripening tomatoes. Photo: Photos_by_Lina, fickr (click to see photo in its original context)

I was recently pointed to an early publication paper that went up on the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences website on Monday, where a research group at India’s National Institute of Plant Genome Research describes two genes from tomato that, when knocked down by RNAi*, result in tomatoes that can remain ripe but not spoiled for up to three times as long as tomatoes where these two genes function normally.

Their approach targets specific genes involved in breaking down certain proteins found in the cell walls of tomatoes (in fact in the cell walls of all plants). Breaking down the cell wall is a key part of ripening in fruits (which the tomato is, botanically if not culinarily). Which makes sense if you’ll think about it for a moment. One of the traits we associate with ripening is getting softer, from bananas to peaches if it’s still crunchy when you bite into it, it wasn’t ripe. What makes plants stiff and crunchy? The strength of their cell walls. Since, unlike vegetables, fruits WANT to be eaten**, as they ripen they begin to break down their cell walls to make themselves more appealing to passing animals. Unfortunately, ripening and spoiling are, in a lot of ways, the same process. If fruits aren’t eaten when they become ripe, they continue to get softer, transitioning from delicious looking -> unappetizing -> inedible -> a puddle of mush on your kitchen counter.

Preventing ripening entirely is relatively easy, and there are plenty of known mutants in tomatoes and other species that never ripen (these naturally mutant tomatoes stay green and hard no matter how long you wait). But getting part of the way to ripeness but stopping before crossing the line into spoiled is a much less tractable problem. (more…)

February 3, 2010

We got to genetics in class today and the story of the shrunken 2 gene

Filed under: biology,Plants,Politics,teaching — Tags: , , , , — James @ 1:17 am

Arabidopsis that carries broken copies of both the AP1 (apetala1) and CAL (cauliflower) genes. The flower bearing stems have been replaced by these cauliflower-head-like growths. Image from "Genome-Wide Analysis of Gene Expression during Early Arabidopsis Flower Development" by Frank Wellmer et al (in PLOS Genetics a creative commons licensed journal). Article here: http://dx.doi.org/doi:10.1371/journal.pgen.0020117

Just in time for me to put together my worksheet for Thursday! I’ve managed to work in the CAL gene, which I talked about last week in my discussion of Cruciferous vegetables:

Cauliflower plants (and broccoflower plants) have broken copies of the CAL gene, which (when it isn’t broken) is helps the plant decide to switch from producing stems that were bear flowers to the flowers themselves. Without a functional version of CAL, cauliflowers just keep making denser and denser stems, producing the distinctive heads of cauliflower. If you have journal access, you can read more about the CAL gene at this science paper: http://dx.doi.org/10.1126/science.7824951

I also threw in a question that uses the shrunken2 gene (one of the two most common genes that convert normal starchy corn into sweet corn). From the question in question:

Note the shriveling of the yellow kernels that carry two broken copies of the shrunken2 gene, the purple kernels carry either one broken and one working copy of shrunken2, or two working copies. The change in color is controlled by another gene nearby on the same chromosome, shrunken2 itself has no effect on the color of corn kernels. Photo credit goes to MG Neuffer and MaizeGDB.

Corn kernels without a working copy of the shrunken2 gene can’t convert very much of the sugar provided by photosynthesis in the leaves of the corn plant into starch. Instead, sugar itself accumulates in the kernel making the corn taste quite sweet.

When sugary corn kernels are dried, they shrivel up, while starchy ones remain relatively round and smooth. This has to do with the fact that sugars are water soluble while starch is not. So, as I understand it, corn kernels with more sugar are also a greater percentage water than corn kernels that are made mostly of starch.

The mutant form of shrunken2 was identified by John Laughnan, a maize geneticist at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign. The story of the discovery as told in Maize Genetics and Breeding in the 20th Century by Peter Peterson and Angelo Bianchi: (more…)

January 27, 2010

A new plant (in the apartment, not the world)

Filed under: Photo Posts,Plants — James @ 7:53 pm

A christmas gift from my folks that only just arrived:

I don’t believe people can identify this plant from this picture, but just in case someone wants to take a shot at it, I won’t reveal the answer until below the fold. (more…)

January 26, 2010

“New” Cruciferous Vegetables

Filed under: food,Genetics,Plant breeding,Plants — Tags: , , , , — James @ 7:02 pm

A stalk of brussels sprouts photo credit: cbmd, flickr (click for photo in original context)

Last week Greg over at Pie-ence was talking about the amazing variety of vegetable crops breed out of a handful of species within the genus Brassica, specifically Brassica rapa and Brassica oleracea.* I’m referring to these as cruciferous vegetables, which is actually a wider category including all the vegetables within the mustard family of plants (scientifically this is called the Brassicaceae). But one of the cool things about having so many kinds of vegetables within the same couple of species is that, because they’re the same species, they can still be interbreed with each other to create “new”** vegetables. (more…)

January 19, 2010

Genome Sequencing vs Genetic Mapping

There was a recent paper in Science about the mapping of the Artemisia annua genome. I’ve seen several people interpret this as another genome sequence. It’s hard to blame anyone for this confusion given headlines like “Scientists map the maize genome!” to describe the sequencing of the maize genome. So what’s the difference between a sequenced genome and a mapped genome? I’m glad you asked! (more…)

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