Got grain? Researchers identify gene that impacts grain yield

Mutants get a bad rap in horror movies and superhero comic books. But when it comes to real-life genomic science, mutations can be very important in the process of making new discoveries.

Researchers at the Donald Danforth Plant Science Center have used four mutations to determine a gene that influences grain yield in grasses related to food crops. This discovery could impact crops used to produce renewable fuels.

The team, led by Dr. Thomas Brutnell, Ph.D., conducted genetic screens on a species called green foxtail, the wild variant of the common crop foxtail millet. The team’s purpose was to identify genes in these Setaria plants that might impact flower development, therefore enhancing the plant’s capabilities for photosynthesis, on the green foxtail’s panicle (a loose, branching configuration of flowers on a plant).

What does this have to do with renewable fuel? The plants that the team worked on are related to a few grasses used for bioenergy.

“We have identified 4 recessive mutants that lead to reduced and uneven flower clusters,” said Pu Huang, Ph.D., lead author on the paper describing the discovery. “By ultimately identifying the gene in green foxtail, we identified a new determinant in the control of grain yield that could be crucial to improving food crops like maize.”

The team constructed a mutant population resource for green foxtail and then screened 2,700 M2 families, then sequencing a mutant pool to identify the causative mutation. They were able to confirm a homologous gene in maize that played a similar role.

Does this discovery open any doors for other industries? Plant breeders may want to take note.

“Identifying this new player in panicle architecture may enable the design of plants with either enhanced or reduced panicle structures,” said Brutnell. “For instance, maize breeding has selected for reduced male panicles to reduce shading in the field while still producing sufficient pollen. However, grain yields in sorghum are directly related to the architecture of the panicle. By showing that this gene influences panicle architecture in Setaria and maize, we have expanded the tool box for breeders.”

For more information on the discovery, click here to read the press release.

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