What is the relationship between maize crop yields and genetic activity in the plant’s metabolic pathways?

An image in a field to demonstrate maize crop yields
© iStock/dszc

A new study has investigated the relationship between maize crop yields and genetic activity in one of the plant‘s metabolic pathways.

Scientists and farmers are looking for ways to optimise maize crop yields further due to climate change and population growth.

The ancestry of maize

Today the maize crop is almost unrecognisable compared to its wild ancestor, teosinte. Human selection has caused the plant to grow in a way that produces higher maize crop yields which can be more efficiently harvested.

Maize crop yields and the genetic activity of its metabolic pathways

Researchers at the Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory (CSHL) have now identified the relationship between the crop yield in the maize plant and specific genetic activity associated with one of the plant’s metabolic pathways.

They found that the RAMOSA3 gene is associated with branching which affects the yield. When a maize plant has too many branches, it expends less energy towards making seeds which often means lower or less efficient yields.

Ears, the part of maize that we eat, are usually one straight cob. But mutant maize plants that do not have the RAMOSA3 gene can end up with branched ears.

The initial hypothesis was that the enzyme that RAMOSA3 encodes, TPP and a sugar phosphate called T6P which TPP acts on, cause the branching. However, they also found a related gene, TPP4, helps to control branching but is unrelated to enzymatic activity.

By blocking the enzyme activity associated with RAMOSA3 and not the gene, the maize had normal ears. This suggests that while RAMOSA3 controls the enzyme activity, the enzyme activity is not responsible for controlling the branching. This means the gene may have a hidden activity, which could be the starting point for future research.

Representative mature ears of genetically unaltered maize, maize with the tpp4 gene blocked, maize with the ra3 gene blocked and maize with both the ra3 and tpp4 genes blocked. Branching in the ear was observed when researchers blocked vital genes as compared to the normal unaltered maize.

The future of plant breeding

The discovery could lead to more resilient, higher-yield maize plants due to its implications for plant breeding.

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