Turning up the action of the Glossy 15 gene could make some corn hybrids good energy crops in the future, according to a University of Illinois report.
The gene was originally described for its role in giving corn seedlings a waxy coating that acts like a sun screen for the young plant. Studies also have shown that the main function of Glossy15 is to slow down shoot maturation. “What happens is that you get bigger plants, possibly because they’re more sensitive to the longer days of summer. We put a corn gene back in the corn and increased its activity. So, it makes the plant slow down and gets much bigger at the end of the season,” says Stephen Moose, University of Illinois plant geneticist.
The ears of corn with the Glossy 15 gene have fewer seeds compared to a normal corn plant and could be a good feed for livestock. Although there is less grain, there is more sugar in the stalks. This type of corn plant may fit the grass-fed beef standard, Moose says.
The energy to make the seed goes into the stalk and leaves instead. “We had been working with this gene for awhile. We thought there would be more wax on the leaves and there was. But we also got this other benefit.”
Moose tested his hypothesis with other corn lines and found that any corn variety can be made bigger with the gene, even in one cross.
An advantage to growing sugar corn for biomass rather than switchgrass or miscanthus is that it is an annual. Moose says that if it were to attract a pest or develop a disease, farmers could rotate to a different crop the next year. He adds that sugar corn might make a good transition crop.
An Alternative Silage
“We think it might take off as a livestock feed, because it’s immediate,” the geneticist says. “This would be useful for on-farm feeding. A farmer who has 50 steers could grow this and use the corn as feed and sell the stalks and sugar. It could be an alternative silage because it has a longer harvest window than regular silage.”
The sugar corn plant would need to get government approval before it could be commercialized, but Moose says that this is about as safe a gene as you can get.