Map the Corn Genome, Keep the Subsidies Flowing


corngenome.jpgWe all know that corn-based ethanol isn’t the route of choice to a sustainable future, but what if corn wasn’t really corn at all?

Researchers at Iowa State have pieced together the genome of maize and will announce it Thursday at the oh-so thrilling-sounding Annual Maize Genetics Conference in Washington, DC. Mapping the corn genome is actually remarkably complicated, as it contains about twice the number of genes as our own DNA and the act is being hailed as a milestone. The researchers even got their school’s president, Gregory Geoffroy, to opine, “Understanding the corn genome will accelerate efforts to develop crops that can meet society’s growing needs for food, feed, fiber and fuel.”

But oddly enough, the press release doesn’t mention genetically modifying crops at all. And genome mapping, of course, is a step towards enabling genetic modifications of various kinds to a species of plant or animal.

We’re all aware of the arguments against genetically modified crops both in terms of genetic spread and also consumer resistance to them. And whether you agree with them or not, if you had a choice, you would likely naturally choose a bred crop. So, it left us asking, what’s the upside to genetically modifying corn?

The answer: corn subsidies. From 1995 to 2005, the US government doled out $51 billion to the corn industry. By continuing to use nominal maize with some new genes (say, some draught resistance and overall hardiness from jatropha), farmers could continue to get subsidies while producing what could eventually, in effect, be a different plant.

Researchers like those with Pioneer Hi-Bred International, a unit of DuPont, are already trying to charge up corn’s oil output by locating a key gene in corn that controls oil yield.

In the greentech world, we might all be over corn, but the subsidies remain, and genetically modifying corn for biofuels is a great example of how that spending ends up impacting research priorities.



Mapping the genome of a crop like maize actually has very limited use in genetically modifying the sequenced species. You’d be better off sequencing the genome of species that contain traits you want to introduce into corn (mostly plants growing in stressful environments. Think the resurrection plants of the American southwest, or plants that thrive in saltwater marshes).

What genome sequencing is really useful for is marker assisted breeding. Rather than adding new genes to corn, this technology speeds up the process of conventional breeding (selecting the tallest, hardiest, highest yielding plants to breed for future years). With a sequenced genome, we can identify the genes already present in the genome that control the traits we find valuable more quickly select the best offspring of matings.


Green energy is definitely the best solution in most cases. Technology like solar energy, wind power, fuel cells, zaps electric vehicles, EV hybrids, etc have come so far recently. Green energy even costs way less than oil and gas in many cases.

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