UD’s Meyers receives NSF grant to study genetic impact of corn mutation

July 19, 2011 under CANR News

In an attempt to understand the genetic impact of a mutation in corn that turns the crop orange and stunts growth, researchers from the University of Delaware and Penn State University have received a $1.2 million grant from the National Science Foundation (NSF).

Leading the UD team is Blake Meyers, Edward and Elizabeth Goodman Rosenberg Professor and chair of the Department of Plant and Soil Sciences in the College of Agriculture and Natural Resources.

The researchers are studying a mutation known as unstable factor for orange1, or Ufo1, which not only impacts the color of the corn, turning the ears from the standard yellow to an orange hue, but has more severe impacts ranging from stunted growth to “whiplash,” a growth defect in which the corn stalk is bent backwards towards the ground.

One important aim of the project is the basic research to understand how gene silencing functions and how it can impact different cellular pathways. This mutant is of interest because it has an “epigenetic” effect on other genes, meaning that Ufo1 produces inherited states in other genes that are caused not by altered nucleotides in the DNA, but by reversible modifications of the DNA.

The research on Ufo1 is being conducted on two fronts, with Surinder Chopra, associate professor of maize genetics at Penn State, working to identify the specific gene that is the Ufo1 mutation and Meyers trying to understand the genetic and genomic impacts of that mutation.

“Basically one gene is altering the expression of many other genes through some sort of epigenetic modification,” Meyers said. “I’m trying to understand, in a global genomic context, what is the impact of this mutation.”

Meyers said he hopes for a happy convergence of the projects, with Chopra pinpointing the gene and Meyers identifying all of the genes or regions of the genome that are showing epigenetic alterations.

“Then we’d like to connect those back to the phenotypic differences that we observe in this mutant,” Meyers said. “There are lots of different effects that are a consequence of this mutation — it’s not just color — and we’d like to understand which genes are causing those phenotypic differences and why those genes are the subject of regulation by this Ufo1 gene.”

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Article by Adam Thomas

Photo by Danielle Quigley