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Gene discovered in corn ‘feeds the seeds’

U. WARWICK (US) — Scientists have discovered a “nourishing gene” that controls the transfer of nutrients from plant to seed.

The findings could help increase global food production, say the researchers.

The study, led by the University of Warwick in collaboration with the University of Oxford and agricultural biotech research company Biogemma, has identified for the first time a gene, named Meg1, which regulates the optimum amount of nutrients flowing from mother to offspring in maize plants.

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Unlike the majority of genes that are expressed from both maternal and paternal chromosomes, Meg1 is expressed only from the maternal chromosomes, say the researchers, whose findings are published in the journal Current Biology.

This unusual form of uniparental gene expression, called imprinting, is not restricted to plants, but also occurs in some human genes that are known to regulate the development of the placenta to control the supply of maternal nutrients during fetal growth.

While scientists have known for a while of the existence of such imprinted genes in humans and other mammals, this is the first time a parallel gene to regulate nutrient provisioning during seed development has been identified in the plant world.

The findings mean that scientists can now focus on using the gene and understanding the mechanism by which it is expressed to increase seed size and productivity in major crop plants.

Jose Gutierrez-Marcos, associate professor of life sciences, says: “These findings have significant implications for global agriculture and food security, as scientists now have the molecular know-how to manipulate this gene by traditional plant breeding or through other methods to improve seed traits, such as increased seed biomass yield.

“This understanding of how maize seeds and other cereal grains develop—for example in rice and wheat—is vital as the global population relies on these staple products for sustenance.”

Professor Hugh Dickinson of Oxford University’s Department of Plant Sciences adds: “To meet the demands of the world’s growing population in years to come, scientists and breeders must work together to safeguard and increase agricultural production.”

The research was supported by the European Union, the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council (BBSRC) and the Royal Society.

More news from University of Warwick: www2.warwick.ac.uk/newsandevents/

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