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Famed plant geneticist to deliver Thornton-Massa Lecture on possibilities with maize

Updated Oct. 31, 2012
by Coleman Cornelius

A prominent plant geneticist will visit Colorado State University for an invited talk about ways breakthrough genetic technologies might be used to improve corn plants to fulfill urgent food needs for people worldwide.

Edward S. Buckler13th annual lecture at CSU this Sunday, Nov. 4

Edward S. Buckler, noted for landmark studies of corn genetics, will be featured speaker at the 13th annual Thornton-Massa Lecture. The talk is set for 4-5:30 p.m. Sunday, Nov. 4 in the Behavioral Sciences Building Auditorium, 410 W. Pitkin St. on the Fort Collins campus. It is free and open to the public.

“I’d like to stimulate thought about how we use the genetic tools now available,” said Buckler, a senior scientist with the U.S. Department of Agriculture-Agricultural Research Service in Ithaca, N.Y. He heads the Buckler Lab for Maize Genetics and Diversity at Cornell University. “What should we do with these really powerful tools? Society at large, including consumers, farmers and environmentalists, need to participate in answering the question.”

Corn – A Genetic Powerhouse

Buckler’s Thornton-Massa Lecture is titled, “Corn – A Genetic Powerhouse: Unleashing Natural Diversity with Genomics for More Sustainable, Robust and Nutritious Crops.” He also will meet with CSU faculty for technical research discussions.

In June, Buckler was named the 2011 Distinguished Senior Research Scientist for USDA-ARS, the federal agency’s top scientific honor.

Buckler was awarded in part for work developing corn varieties with significantly higher levels of carotenoids for subsistence farmers in sub-Saharan Africa, where corn is a dominant food crop and vitamin A deficiencies often cause childhood blindness and immune dysfunction.

These farmers live in Zambia, a nation in sub-Saharan Africa where maize is a dominant food crop. Edward Buckler notes that using genetic tools to improve maize could boost nutrition and quality of life for people around the globe. <em>World Food Programme photo/Rein Skullerud</em>At the forefront of plant genetics

Meantime, his studies of maize have put Buckler at the forefront of plant genetics, leading to molecular tools now used to study the genetic underpinnings of a wide range of plants and diseases, USDA –ARS said.

“We are excited to host a scientist who is deeply knowledgeable about a crop that’s tremendously valuable as a food source and as a commodity in Colorado and around the world,” said Tom Holtzer, lead organizer of the 2012 Thornton-Massa Lecture and head of the CSU Department of Bioagricultural Sciences and Pest Management. “Dr. Buckler’s work with maize has advanced plant genetics overall, and his ability to discuss the significance of his research makes him a thought-provoking speaker for scientists and laypeople alike.”

A beacon for the future

Cutting-edge tools are allowing scientists to better understand the complex maize genome – composed of 32,000 genes spread over 10 chromosomes – and to quickly identify natural variations controlling abundant traits, including those that regulate nutrient levels, drought tolerance, carbon metabolism and even the ability to grow perennially. Many scientists, farmers and environmentalists think perennial crops could be a beacon for the future.

With these tools, scientists can now use traditional plant-breeding or transgenic techniques to develop improved maize varieties. The next generation of maize might better address global food security, the demand for livestock feed and biofuels, and the serious need for environmental conservation.

“By combining some of the world’s largest field and DNA studies with mathematical analysis, we now understand the complexity of how many genes are involved in variability and their control of how a plant grows,” Buckler writes in the abstract for his CSU talk. “Plant breeding and genetics have the potential to contribute to – and solve – numerous agricultural issues, but the question that remains is how best to use these new technologies, knowledge and resources to increase food security throughout the world.”

Sponsors: Colleges of Agricultural Sciences and Natural Sciences

The Thornton-Massa Lecture is sponsored by the CSU College of Agricultural Sciences and College of Natural Sciences. The lecture honors the late Dr. Emil Massa of Denver and the late Bruce and Mildred Thornton, who shared a common interest in biodiversity, plant genetics, agriculture and horticulture. These commonalities led their families to endow the annual Thornton-Massa Lecture as a way to encourage public discourse about important issues in the field of plant science.

Food insecurity is often a difficult problem for children like these at Mlomba School in Malawi. Buckler has produced maize to assist children in sub-Saharan Africa who suffer from vitamin A and immune deficiencies. <em>World Food Programme photo/David Orr</em>Why care about corn?

Corn is an important source of human food, livestock feed and fuel around the globe. Economic impacts of corn are particularly clear in 2012, when much of the U.S. Corn Belt is experiencing “extreme” or “exceptional” drought, according to the U.S. Drought Monitor.

  • The United States is the world’s largest corn producer and exports about 20 percent of its annual corn crop to other countries.
  • About 80 million acres of land in the United States are annually planted in corn, with most of the crop grown in the Midwest.
  • Up to 1.3 million acres of corn are planted in Colorado each year, typically placing it among the state’s top five commodities based on sales.
  • In the United States, most of the corn crop is used for livestock feed.
  • Corn is also processed into a number of food and industrial products, including starch, sweeteners, corn oil, beverage and industrial alcohol, and fuel ethanol.

(Sources: USDA Economic Research Service; Colorado Corn)