Genetic secrets in corn

Corn or maize — America’s number one crop — is of special interest to Chunguang (Charles) Du, a biology and molecular biology professor and the recipient of a three-year National Science Foundation Plant Genome Research Program-funded sub award from Rutgers University.

Building on the results of a previously funded NSF project, Du and his team aim to produce a sequence-indexed reverse genetics resource for maize that will let researchers fully exploit the maize genome sequence, which could eventually lead to better corn crops for farmers.

When a single gene is disrupted, the resulting mutant line gives scientists a fresh understanding of its function, according to Du, the co-principal investigator on the project. “The resource we are creating will consist of 15,000 gene knock-out mutants,” he says. “Researchers can take our gene knock-out mutants to study particular gene functions.”

The project will integrate his bioinformatics sequence analysis with the high-throughput genetic sequencing done at the Rutgers lab, which allows scientists to quickly conduct millions of tests, Du says.

“Bioinformatics, which merges biotechnology and information technology to reveal new insights and principles in biology, lets scientists manage, store and analyze huge amounts of data,” he explains. “Here, our bioinformatics sequence analysis will perform computational data mining to understand the DNA sequence functions.”

During summers, student interns will work in Du’s lab, while undergraduate and graduate students will work there during the academic year. “Students in my genomics class will manually curate the DNA transposon candidates identified by our project,” Du explains. “We are trying to create as many mutants as possible with the transposon inserted into gene candidates we’ve pinpointed with DNA sequencing.”

“Forty percent of the world’s corn is grown in the U.S.,” says Du. “Our study will ultimately help corn breeders release more high-yield, good quality and environmentally friendly new corn varieties for American farmers.”