Much of the 2019 corn growth in the USA is erratic due to wild swings in water and temperature, affecting planting timing and plant densities. And that is only what we see! Internally many interactions are also occurring and are affected by these environments.
Much of the above-ground growth for the first 30-40 days after seedling emergence is due to cell elongation within leaves. This not only allows the expansion of leaf blades to increase the mass of leaf tissue, but also elongation of the leaf sheaths, pushing up the plant height. Cell elongation is not only occurring in the outer tissue, but internal cells also grow in size during this time.
Cell elongation is driven by energy allowing production of cell components such as cell wall cellulose and lignin but also increase in the membranes, ribosomes, mitochondria and chloroplasts needed to drive the growth. Immature cells, before tightly constricted by deposits of solid cell walls, expand with water pressure during this growth pressure. Consequently, soil water and root development become major factors affecting the size of the corn plant during this pre-flowering stage. Root development not only affects the absorption and movement of water into these growing leaf cells but also uptake minerals needed for the general metabolism. Expansion of leaf blades during this time also increases the absorption of light driving photosynthesis, providing more energy for cell function and growth.
Multiple environment factors influence water supply to corn plants, but genetics also distinguish variety reactions to growth of the plant. Root size and growth pattern affect water and mineral uptake. Structure of vascular tissue from roots to leaves affect efficiency of water movement. Number and activity of stomata in leaves affect the evaporation of water from leaves. Efficiency and number of chloroplasts within the cells affect the transmission of light energy to carbohydrates, mitochondrial numbers and efficiency affect the change of this energy into ATP for use in the formation of proteins and other products needed for cell growth. Translation of chromosomal DNA to RNA that moves to ribosomes where the codes for specific amino acids are strung together for specific proteins, some of which are used as enzymes driving production of cell structure components. A large number of those 30-40000 corn genes must be participating in that early growth of a corn plant.
It is difficult to predict the final grain production of fields under these circumstances and it is probably that all hybrids will not react the same, even if the principles of biology will apply to all.
After emergence and successful elongation of the first true leaves, photosynthesis becomes the energy source for future growth. Consistent with its tropical origin, corn photosynthesis is negatively affected by low temperatures. Leaves grown at 14°C (57°F) have 30% of the photosynthesis rate as those grown at 25°C (77°F). (Plant Physiol. (1995) 108: 761-767). Much of this reduction is recovered within a few hours if the leaves are returned to the higher mid-70 temperatures.
Light energy absorbed by chlorophyll causes an electron to be moved within the chloroplast but if it does not ultimately get utilized in synthesis of carbohydrates, it can damage a critical protein needed in photosynthesis. Corn chloroplasts react by producing a yellow pigment (zeaxanthin) protein that is active in the quick recovery after the heat returns. Chlorophyll molecules are relatively unstable especially in high light intensity and low temperatures, further contributing to reduced photosynthesis at the lower temperatures.
Another protection system in corn, and other plants, that develops in the cell outside of the chloroplast is the pigment anthocyanin. This red pigment absorbs the blue light spectrum of sunlight and thus reduces photosynthesis. Anthocyanin forms after the sugars reach a high concentration. This often happens in seedlings when sugars are unable to be translocated to the roots, again because lack of the heat energy needed to move the sugars. Hybrids vary in the tendency to produced anthocyanin, occasionally causing alarm to the grower but return to warmer temperatures results in disappearance of the red color and normal photosynthetic rates in the seedling leaves. (Corn Journal, 5/5/2016)
Leaf epidermis cells provide important functions beyond providing a tight layer of cell walls surrounding the inner mesophyll cells of the leaf. Epidermal cells also produce a polysaccharide layer outside the outer cell walls and a fatty acid layer of wax further outside. Synthesis of these cuticle and wax substances begins in plastids within the cytoplasm of the epidermal cells. These newly manufactured compounds are moved via the endoplasmic reticulum eventually being deposited on the outer surface of the epidermal cell walls. The fatty acid wax is moved further outside forming a waxy surface to the cuticle.
Multiple genes are involved in production of these complex molecules as synthesis requires linking simple products of photosynthesis (glucose) with inorganic materials to form new compounds. The basic process is common to all land plants as they adapted to life outside of the aqua environment of algae. Further selection for adaptation to varying corn environments allowed for selection of genetics affecting responses to environmental stress.
Outer wax causes water to run off the surface, taking pathogen spores with it. Chemicals applied by growers usually include a surfactant to overcome the water resistance by breaking the tendency of the water molecules to form drops, thus reducing this feature of wax. Pathogenic leaf fungi enter the leaf either by establishing a ‘drilling station’ on the surface from which hyphae extension (appresorium) is pushed through the wax and cuticle layers on the epidermal cells. Other fungi and some bacteria, unable to penetrate the wax and cuticle, avoid the problem by entering through the stomatal openings.
Wax also prevents water loss. Corn genotypes vary in this response to dry environments, some making thicker layers of wax than others when in a dry environment. Leaf surfaces of hybrids grown in the less humid environments of western corn belt have a different texture than the same hybrid grown in the more humid eastern US corn belt. Wax production differences among varieties is probably one of the components to more drought resistance.
Cell division in the meristem establishes the eventual structure of the new leaves unfolding in the young seedlings. Corn has several unique leaf structures that contribute to it’s ability to be one of the most efficient crops in capturing CO2 from the atmosphere. One contributor is part of the epidermis.
The single layer of cells on both the top and bottom of corn leaves are mostly non-pigmented cells tightly bound together, restricting water loss. Further protection comes from a wax covering the outside of these cells. The exception to this tight wall structure comes from some unique cells interspersed within the epidermis on both sides of the leaf. These cells not only have chloroplasts with chlorophyll but are shaped differently. The two guard cells of the stomata are shaped in a manner that allows only one side of each cell to swell with water, with the affect of making a small pore in the epidermis between the two cells. The swelling occurs during photosynthesis within these cells. This process essentially results in the import of potassium ion into the cells, causing an increase of solutes and thus, through osmosis, transfer of water into the cells. The result is stomata pores are open.
This is essential, of course, to allow diffusion of CO2 into leaves for photosynthesis in other leaf cells. Open stomates allows O2 to be released to the atmosphere but also water loss. Water evaporation through stomates (transpiration) is affected by the relative humidity in surrounding atmosphere as the water concentration within the leaf spaces is nearly 100%. Cohesiveness of water molecules 'pulls’ water up to the leaves so that essentially every molecule of water that goes out the stomata is replaced by one from the root tissue.
During the day, stomata are open, carbon dioxide moves into the leaf, oxygen moves out and so does water. At night, photosynthesis in the guard cells stops, water moves out of the guard cells causing the swelling to be reduced and the pore is closed. More references on the links below.
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.