Crop Tech Corner

Stem Cell Discovery Sends Corn Yields Soaring

Emily Unglesbee
By  Emily Unglesbee , DTN Staff Reporter
Connect with Emily:
Scientists from Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory tweaked a stem cell regulatory pathway in corn plants to produce mutants that yielded 50% more grain. (DTN photo by Nick Scalise)

ROCKVILLE, Md. (DTN) -- This bi-monthly column condenses the latest news in the field of crop technology, research and products.


Scientists from Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory (CSH) in New York have found a technique that boosted corn yields by up to 50% in an initial study. The team of scientists, led by David Jackson, isolated a chemical signal from the leaves of a plant that acts like a brake on stem cell growth to control the plant's growth and development.

In a CSH video, Jackson used an architecture analogy to help illustrate the signal's importance: "Architects make the plans and then they give those plans to a builder who lays down the bricks to make a foundation and the walls," he said. "So imagine those bricks are sending a signal back to the architect to change the way the house should look based on the local environment."

The scientists identified the receptor that receives this braking signal from the leaves, a structure called FEA3. They examined mutant plants where FEA3 didn't work properly and found that without the "brake" receptor, stem cells proliferated and overwhelmed the plant with the production of more kernels than it could support. Smaller ears and lower yielding plants were the result.

To reverse the effect, scientists grew FEA3 mutants with a weakened, but not disabled, receptor. With the "brake" released just slightly, more stem cells grew but not so many as to overwhelm the plant's resources. The resulting plants produced ears with more rows of kernels and a 50% higher yield than non-mutant corn plants.

This newly discovered regulatory pathway is common in most plants. Jackson and his colleagues are hopeful that it could be used to increase yield in many major crops beyond corn. For now, the scientists are testing the weakened FEA3 trait in elite, high-yielding corn hybrids and other crops. Their work is funded by a diverse group: DuPont Pioneer, the National Science Foundation Plant Genome Research Program, the Gatsby Charitable Foundation, the Swedish Research Council, and the Rural Development Administration of Republic of Korea.

For more information see the CSH press release here:….


Springtime planting requires a lot of quick decisions from farmers, especially when weather damages a newly emerged crop. A new Soybean Replant App could help growers make those last-minute field calculations this year. The University of Wisconsin's College of Agriculture and Life Sciences and the Wisconsin Soybean Marketing Board produced the app. It is available for free for farmers with iPhones or Android devices.

The app requires only five stand samples from a soybean field at the VC, V1 or V2 growth stage. Growers can manually count the stand samples or just take five pictures for the app to automatically analyze. "It is as easy as holding your iPhone at arm's length and shoulder height out in front of you, with the camera facing down toward the plants at your feet," the app's iTunes description explains. "There are lines on the camera preview to show where the plant rows should line up." From these images, the app calculates the expected percent of potential yield the field will produce with and without replanting. For growers with Wisconsin operations, the app includes the historical median frost date for the township nearest the field.

For more information, see this summary from University of Wisconsin soybean specialist Shawn Conley's blog Badger Bean:…. You can download the app for an iPhone here:…, and for an Android device here:….

Emily Unglesbee can be reached at

Follow Emily Unglesbee on Twitter @Emily_Unglesbee.


Emily Unglesbee