Innovation helps corn plants better withstand drought stress

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DuPont Pioneer announced its scientists have made a significant advancement in developing corn plants that successfully withstand drought stress. In an upcoming edition of the scientific publication, Plant Biotechnology Journal, Pioneer scientists reveal a new finding that higher yielding corn plants succeed under drought conditions when naturally occurring ethylene stress hormone levels in the plant are reduced through a transgene. The study, “Transgenic Alteration of Ethylene Biosynthesis Increases Grain Yield in Maize under Field Drought-Stress Conditions” by Jeff Habben and colleagues is the most in-depth research effort of its kind reported to date in peer-reviewed scientific literature.

 “This advancement is particularly crucial at a time when the U.S. is experiencing a historic drought in places like California, and much of the world is worried about the continued availability of water to grow food crops," said Jerry Flint, vice president for Biotech Affairs and Regulatory at DuPont Pioneer. “The new advances in drought tolerant corn reflect the DuPont Pioneer commitment to identifying sustainable solutions to increase food availability to meet the needs of the people today, without compromising the ability of future generations to do the same.”

Drought advancements like these are critically important as drought remains the leading cause of crop yield loss and the effects of drought reverberate far beyond agriculture communities, causing global food prices to increase. Already, the California Farm Water Coalition estimates that the drought in California has cost $5 billion as of February. Estimated crop losses from a widespread drought in 2012 reached $40 billion in lost crops and livestock and U.S. crop prices hit historic highs due to the drought according to the National Climatic Data Center. 
 
Study findings
The Pioneer research spanned testing in multiple locations in numerous genetic backgrounds over two years. Jeff Habben, scientist and lead author of the article explains that corn breeders at Pioneer have been developing hybrids that are productive under drought stress conditions for more than 80 years, starting its first drought-specific breeding program in York, Neb. in the mid-1950s. This effort has been very successful in generating germplasm with improved drought tolerance and scientists are now achieving a better understanding of the underlying mechanisms that contribute to this productivity.

Importantly, the identified transgenic approach has the additional benefit of enhanced nitrogen use efficiency, resulting in another potential management tool for farmers. Renee Lafitte, a fellow author, who has evaluated tropical corn states, “It’s not just about improving productivity for farmers, we also need to maintain and improve sustainability of our land and water resources. We believe that transgenes, in combination with superior hybrids and agronomic management, are the tools that can help farms be more sustainable and productive.”

Habben further discusses the study’s findings by noting that ethylene is a stress hormone prevalent in almost all plants, but in highly variable levels depending on plant type, plant tissue, and stress conditions. “We’ve always believed that corn plants are too conservative in their response to drought and readily terminate kernels or only partially fill the ear when drought hits,” states Habben, “so we are working to help the crop get through critical developmental stages by modulating ethylene levels to maintain improved yield stability.”

Pioneer leads the industry in on-farm testing using year-round managed stress environments.  The advancements made in understanding ethylene biology have potential applications for other crops and could enhance the already strong Pioneer brand Optimum AQUAmax hybrid line-up developed through a native trait approach. Optimum AQUAmax hybrids are expected to be planted on more than 10 million acres in 2014.

The challenge of feeding a projected 9 billion people by 2050 is daunting, but developments like this have the potential to enable farmers to grow more food on a fixed amount of arable land, with limited resources, to meet the needs of a growing global population.


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