On a daily basis, most of us do not think about the crops that our food comes from. And yet, the importance of commercial crop studies cannot be overstated, especially for human health. Without the crucial genetic mapping resources developed by Prof. Edward Buckler, plant breeding and genetics, these studies would be impossible.
As a geneticist at the United States Department of Agriculture’s Agricultural Research Service, Buckler is in a unique position to manage a variety of national resources to lead such studies. These efforts culminated in a Washington, D.C. ceremony in April, where Buckler was awarded the National Academy of Sciences Prize in Food and Agricultural Studies. The award is granted in recognition of a scientist whose work improves upon the understanding of a species of high commercial importance to the nation.
Buckler’s research explores the importance of over 15,000 species of commercial crops, ranging from grapes to sorghum, but one crop has dominated his interest: maize. The reason for this focus is the natural efficiency of maize as a crop. Maize, along with other commercial crops such as sorghum and sugarcane, belongs to a high efficiency group of plants known as C4 grasses.
“Maize is physiologically really good at taking sunlight and water and converting it into starch and sugar so it’s biologically more efficient at doing that than virtually any other crop,” Buckler said. “That’s why maize has outcompeted other crops.”
Maize accounts for 95 percent of produced feed grain in the United States, according to USDA-ERS. Along with its commercial importance, its versatility as a crop and biofuel source means that significant effort is devoted to researching its features. The crop’s genome is also extremely diverse — more so than that of most vertebrae, including humans.
“Maize is incredibly genetically diverse at the DNA level. Any two varieties of maize are as divergent of one another as humans are from chimpanzees,” Buckler said. “We’ve estimated there’s about two hundred million genetic variations of the maize genome. The maize genome size has actually made it much more difficult to analyze. A lot of what our group has done is come up with approaches to deal with that incredible level of complexity and diversity.”
This complexity allows crops to develop varieties, some of which end up thriving. Buckler aims to unravel these mysteries in order to understand how to tweak the crop’s genome and make it capable of resisting droughts and diseases. For example, his lab has developed a new variety of maize enriched in pro-vitamin A, which may address vitamin A deficiencies in underdeveloped countries.
The laboratory’s research tools, which can map the genetic variations in maize and connect the genetic identity of crops to their physical traits, have been published as open source software to aid global efforts to map the genomes of different species, plants and animals alike. Tools like the Genome Association And Prediction Integrated Tool have been downloaded over 20,000 times across the globe and are used by researchers working on a variety of topics, from commercial crops to human and animal genetics.
“The best way to get these types of tools out to groups around the world is to make them open source. Natural plant variation is the result of thousands of years of plant breeding. That natural variation should be shared and understood by all humanity,” Buckler said.
Buckler intends to continue to devote time to exploring the maize genome. However, with the help of this award, he aims to tackle other commercial crops like grapes and switchgrass (a biofuel source) so as to better understand how to use their properties for innovative new applications.