Francis Crick and James D. Watson produced their double helix model of DNA in 1953. It took a decade after that to put together the relation between the nucleic acid codes of the DNA to RNA to protein synthesis from the amino acids coded in the DNA. These discoveries triggered the advance of biotechnology during the 70’s. Researchers concentrating on whole plant physiology, development, taxonomy and environmental interactions were suspect that researchers concentrating on the chemical nature of genes were not adequately acknowledging the complexity of plant biology. Vice-versa, gene specialists were looking at the traditional researchers as old school. Francis Crick is quoted in a book entitled ‘The Gene’ by Siddhartha Mukherjee as saying “each generation needs its own music” implying that the new music was with molecular structure and function of DNA.
My academic training included much more old school with traditional botany and pathology during the 60’s. The new genetics story was fascinating but my primary interests were, and are, with the whole plant. Advances in the knowledge of genetics remain fascinating, as not only has the corn genome size been defined (32,000+ genes) and 2.3 billion nucleic acid base pairs and now, using the CRISPR methodology, some of these genes can be modified. Inserting single genes for controlling certain insects or resistance to a few herbicides is now old technology.
Despite these gains by the ‘new musicians’ some of us old school types are still impressed by the complexity of corn biology. Proteins coded by DNA function in multiple physiological pathways to construct the vascular bundle cells, allowing for the movement of nutrients for developing tissue, the photosynthesis process that converts light energy into sugar molecules, and the movement of that sugar to kernel endosperm and the synthesis of starch from the sugars. Each of these processes are affected by the right genes turned on at the right time. It is impressive that in the 50+ years since we understood the DNA-RNA-protein synthesis process occurring in cells that now we can count the genes and even construct new ones, but there remains a lot of science left to understand how we select the best hybrid for the predicted corn environment in the summer of 2017. Should it have deep roots to better uptake of water, or spreading shallow roots to avoid root lodging in wet summers in high organic soils? Will good resistance to northern leaf blight be a factor or will there be a new corn disease making an appearance. Perhaps the music of the current generation is “it takes two to tango”.
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About Corn Journal
The purpose of this blog is to share perspectives of the biology of corn, its seed and diseases in a mix of technical and not so technical terms with all who are interested in this major crop. With more technical references to any of the topics easily available on the web with a search of key words, the blog will rarely cite references but will attempt to be accurate. Comments are welcome but will be screened before publishing. Comments and questions directed to the author by emails are encouraged.