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UW–Madison awarded FFAR grant to map corn drought tolerance genes

The majority of America’s corn farmers rely on seasonal rainfall to water crops, yet extreme weather and drought present a growing challenge to the corn industry. The Foundation for Food and Agriculture Research (FFAR) is awarding an $1.8 million grant through the Crops of the Future Collaborative to the University of Wisconsin–Madison to identify genetic markers in corn associated with drought tolerance and thereby accelerate the breeding of drought-resistant varieties. FFAR provided $900,000 and InariKWS and Syngenta contributed the matching funds for this three-year project through their participation in Crops of the Future.

“The future of farming means growing more food with fewer resources,” says FFAR Executive Director Sally Rockey. “Increased climate instability will continue shrinking aquifers and exacerbating droughts. FFAR is investing in this project to produce corn varieties designed to thrive with limited water. This project, supported through the FFAR Crops of the Future collaborative, ultimately helps farmers prepare for impending climate variability.”

Drought is an incredibly complex stress and one that reduces corn crop production. If corn plants receive insufficient water when plants are young, their root systems become underdeveloped. The smaller roots lead to nutrient deficiency. Drought stress during the flowering and grain-production periods can lead to reduced kernel size and lower crop yield. The 2012 drought saw corn production fall by 4 billion bushels from pre-drought estimates, leading to a loss of approximately $22 billion for America’s farmers.

Researchers at the University of Wisconsin–Madison are focusing on drought stress during corn’s flowering and grain-growing lifecycle stages. By identifying the genes that together affect drought tolerance, the team can accelerate the development of drought-tolerant corn varieties.

“Nearly four million acres of corn are grown in Wisconsin, making it an important crop in our local economy,” says Kate VandenBosch, dean of the College of Agricultural and Life Sciences (CALS) at UW–Madison. “I am pleased that we can contribute our expertise in corn genetics to understand the fundamental biological mechanisms that make the plant more resilient. This will lead to more efficient varieties benefiting farmers, consumers and the ecosystem.”

CALS agronomy professors Natalia De Leon and Shawn Kaeppler will be leading the project’s research efforts at the university.

The Crops of the Future Collaborative convenes industry participants to collectively fund and execute research to fill knowledge gaps common across the industry. With knowledge of these breeding tools, the consortia participants can create corn varieties better suited to a changing climate.

“Collaborating in this way to map Corn Drought Tolerance Genes is crucial to enabling crops to ‘keep up’ with environmental stressors and climate change,” says Trevor Hohls, Syngenta global head of seeds development. “Syngenta is excited to partner with FFAR and the academic community to bring direct benefit to farmers and help grow our scientific talent base.”

“As we look to the crops of the future, our farmers and agricultural systems will continue to be dealing with greater challenges such as climate instability and water availability. At KWS, we look beyond short-term success and focus on the development of sustainable and visionary solutions that increase food security and ensure a healthy world for future generations. This project is well aligned with our mission and we are pleased to be part of this public-private collaborative effort,” says Dr. Derek Bartlem, Managing Director/Head of Research USA for KWS.

“Collaborations drive the change that addresses critical problems we face globally in agriculture,” says Mark Stowers, Chief Operations Officer and President of North America at Inari. “Discovering the genetics behind drought tolerance will be important in the work we do at Inari to address to not only the needs of growers, but those of the planet as well.”

This project is an expansion of a 2018 grant FFAR awarded to the University of Wisconsin. The $100,000 seed grant, co-funded by KWS and Syngenta, established a research nursery to launch this larger effort.

About the Crops of the Future Collaborative: The Crops of the Future Collaborative is a public-private, multi-participant consortium convened by the Foundation for Food and Agriculture Research. The Collaborative brings together companies and leading research organizations to accelerate the development of new crop varieties that address challenges in food and agriculture. The Collaborative will leverage the knowledge, capabilities, and financial resources of participants to expand the scientific understanding of characteristics giving rise to complex traits that crops will need to adapt to changing environments.