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Serendipity from science
Maize enzymes could hold the secret to maximizing plant growth potential — that’s according to a molecular and cellular biology professor at the University of Guelph.
Professor Michael Emes inserted maize genes into a strain of the Arabidopsis plant that could not produce starch. He was surprised to discover that not only could the plant make starch again, but the modified plant grew to almost twice the size as the control group.
The altered Arabidopsis also produced almost five times as many seeds — approximately 50,000 per plant instead of 11,000.
“There was a moment where you finally stand back and see the wood through the trees, and you realize that the plants themselves are extraordinarily different,” says Emes.
According to Emes, the experiment never intended to focus on Arabidopsis’s plant growth and yield potential, instead, the motivation was “basic science.”
“If you got up in the morning and said ‘I want to make a bigger plant with more seeds,’ you probably wouldn’t have started here,” says Emes. “It’s one of those great bits of serendipity from science that, if you observe what’s going on when you do experiments, you sometimes get surprises that turn out to be very interesting.”
Emes and his colleagues, Dr. Ian Tetlow and Dr. Fushan Liu, study starch, which provides plants with energy and is also the most common carbohydrate in the human diet.
Understanding the underlying differences between starches from different plants can provide useful insight into building more nutritionally useful plants.
Emes is currently focused on studying starchy crops like maize, but he says that research on oilseed crops which are closely related to Arabidopsis — like canola and soybeans — is under way. He remains cautiously optimistic about crop trial results.
“Even if, in an oilseed crop, you get a fraction of the yield improvement we’ve seen in Arabidopsis, that would still represent a massive increase in production,” says Emes.
Funding for this project has been provided by the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada. •
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