When we look at corn, we see green leaves, white silk and yellow kernels.
Anne Sylvester sees her life’s work.
One of America’s leading researchers in maize genetics, specifically cell division and cell expansion, Sylvester is working to help advance science that she hopes will bring agricultural improvements to one of the world’s most important crops.
“Corn is really a human-designed plant, like most of our advanced crops such as wheat, rice and other grains, and these are the crops that really feed the world,” says Sylvester, a University of Wyoming professor in the Department of Molecular Biology. “It’s a fantastic crop with high yield, but with population growth and a changing world, there’s mounting pressure on food producers, and crops like corn need to be adapted.
“To do that, we really need basic, foundational information about the plant, and that’s where my research comes in,” she says.
“I study the most basic proteins that contribute to cell growth, the elements that give rise to the plant.”
Though maize is one of the world’s oldest food sources—the Olmec and Mayans are believed to have cultivated it throughout Mesoamerica before the crop spread throughout the Americas around 2500 B.C.—the genetics of corn have changed throughout the years, both in the sugar-rich varieties of sweet corn grown mostly for human consumption and the field corn varieties used primarily for animal feed.
The crop must continue to evolve, says Sylvester, for maize to maintain its role as a major food source.
“What we’re learning right now is that specific proteins, such as those that control cell development, can change the way a plant responds to water availability or change leaf shape,” says Sylvester, whose research efforts have received major funding during her career from the National Science Foundation (NSF) and the U.S. departments of Agriculture and Energy.
“Corn has huge leaves. It’s a big plant, and it produces an energy-rich ear. Domesticated corn is also an intensive water user,” she adds. “That’s why we, basic researchers and corn breeders alike, are interested in making the plant more efficient so that it uses less water but still produces a high yield. My goal is to understand the most fundamental mechanisms of growth control and identify new traits that could be selected or engineered.”
In her research, Sylvester also addresses the question of the plant’s architecture to learn whether the shape of its leaf can be manipulated to improve efficiency.
“The angle of the leaf has been adjusted through corn domestication and breeding genetics,” says Sylvester.
“The original blade of the corn leaf is normally at about 45 degrees to the plant. You actually see that in corn you grow in your own garden.