Fertilizer represents 13%-15% of the cost of growing a corn crop according to Iowa State University Extension as found in their 2018 Estimated Costs of Crop Production in Iowa publication. Thus, if this input expense could be eliminated or at least dramatically reduced, it would represent a breakthrough of significant proportion. To that end, a self-fertilizing corn hybrid may be available sooner than your think. This story will explore recent developments on the discovery of a self-fertilizing corn breed. Additionally, the piece will examine efforts for reducing time to market for enhanced corn hybrids.
No-till farmer picked up a story originally run in the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel. Its title is “There Are many ‘Ifs’, but Discovery of Self-Fertilizing Corn Could Transform Agriculture.” Researchers have spent the better part of the last decade studying a specific corn variety found in the southern parts of Mexico. The lead researcher from the University of Wisconsin-Madison acknowledged that the discovery was nearly unbelievable. Hence, the thoroughness of the researchers to validate their findings.
The scientists have concluded that farmers in Oaxaca, Mexico have been growing corn that creates its own fertilizer for centuries if not longer.
Fertilizer Creation Explained
The corn is able to do this by having a symbiotic relationship with bacteria.
The plants in Mexico have bizarre fingerlike roots sticking out of their stalks. The roots secrete a goopy mucus, in which bacteria live. The bacteria take nitrogen from the air — which plants can’t use — and convert it to a different form of nitrogen that they can use. The plants soak up the fixed nitrogen in the gel through the fingerlike roots.
Are Researchers Sure?
Jean-Michel Ané, a professor in the UW-Madison Department of Agronomy, who has been involved in the project since 2010 was initially asked if he thought such a relationship could be possible.
“They came to me and asked if I thought it was possible that corn could be associated with nitrogen-fixing bacteria, and I thought, no way.”
Equally important, researchers asked and ran tests to get answers to three key questions.
- Are any of the bacteria found in the gel known nitrogen-fixers?
- Does the corn soak up less nitrogen from the soil than a similar, non-nitrogen-fixing variety?
- Does the corn for sure soak up nitrogen from the gel?
The answers researchers have concluded to each of these questions is yes.
“It took us several years to convince ourselves that it was true. That’s why it took us almost 10 years to publish that paper. It’s a big claim. We wanted to be sure,” Ané said.
Ordering Self-Fertilizing Corn Hybrids
Growers in the U.S. won’t be able to order new corn hybrids with this self-fertilizing trait for the 2019 growing season. However, there are recent developments to accelerate the speed by which corn breeding occurs. Tom Steever of Brownfield Ag News recently reported on these developments in a piece titled, “Predicting the Next Big Yielding Hybrid”. Steever interviewed University of Illinois corn breeder Martin Bohn on his work to streamline the corn breeding process.
Bohn is hoping to improve corn breeding efficiency such that corn hybrid performance can be better predicted. By leveraging the corn genome Bohn intends to accomplish this goal. Bohn and team members from University of Illinois and University of Minnesota hope to develop a tool to cut out the trial-and-error involved in traditional corn breeding. Their timeline for having such a tool available is three years. Maybe Bohn’s tool will be used to fast track the creation of a hybrid that has the self-fertilizing corn trait recently discovered in Mexico.
A ground breaking discovery in the corn plant world was made in Mexico. A self-fertilizing corn has been grown by farmers for years. Up to 15% of the cost to grow a corn crop is spent on fertilizers. Thus, if this trait were incorporated into high yielding hybrids, the savings to a U.S. corn grower could be significant. Moreover, the impact to the industry and environment from such a trait could be revolutionary. Meanwhile others are working to improve the corn breeding process so such traits can reach the market sooner.
Image Courtesy UW-Madison