Turning Corn Into A Perennial Crop

Scientists have tried for more than 100 years to breed perennial cereal crops that will yield as much as annual crops. We recently caught up with a researcher working to develop perennial corn.


   “Perennials store some of their nutrients and carbohydrates below ground to be used in subsequent years,” says Kyle Swentowsky, a postdoctoral researcher at the Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory in New York. “This allows them to develop really deep root systems that tap into nutrients and water annuals may not reach.”


   He says these deep roots also mean perennial crops may grow better in areas with more severe erosion.


   “There are some hypothetical disadvantages as well,” he says. “Since a perennial must store some of its nutrients/carbohydrates for the next season, it’s possible they’ll be less productive than their annual counterparts. The counter-argument is that perennials in subsequent years of growth establish their vegetation much quicker than an annual planted from seed, so it has a longer period of the year that light is intercepted to convert into carbohydrates.”


   To create a perennial corn, breeders in the past have attempted to use traditional breeding methods to transfer the perennial genes into maize. This has been largely unsuccessful since hundreds of major and minor-effect modifier genes are required.


   Swentowsky is trying an alternative approach called “de novo domestication” which involves gene editing on the perennial ancestor to modify genes we know were involved in maize domestication. While feasible in other crops, no one has tried this with the wild relative of maize.


   His research is in the early stages, but Swentowsky hopes his new approach may lay the foundation for other researchers to successfully breed perennial varieties in the future.


   Contact: FARM SHOW Followup, Kyle Swentowsky, Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory, One Bungtown Road, Cold Spring Harbor, N.Y. 11724 (ph 516-367-8800; info@cshl.edu; www.cshl.edu).