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Growing Corn for Carbon

If global warming continues at the predicted pace, every citizen of Earth will be affected. From about 1000 A.D. to 1800 A.D., CO2 concentrations However, between 1850 and 1996, CO2 increased over 76 percent. This rapid increase has been implicated in major climatic shifts that could prove detrimental to humankind. Worldwide agriculture accounts for only 20 percent of the anthropogenic increase and 7 percent in the U.S. Less than 4 percent of the CO2 emission is due to agriculture.

By reducing greenhouse gases, agriculture could alleviate the impact of global warming. Agricultural producers also would be preventing the predicted disruption of climate due to global warming that could result in devastating crop losses, seriously jeopardizing agriculture's ability to feed the world. Increasing total corn biomass would be beneficial in reducing global warming in two ways. First, it would result in increased production of biofuels to be used as substitutes for fossil fuels, keeping the carbon tied up in long-term storage. Second, it would increase the root biomass for increased carbon sequestration, reducing the amount of total CO2 in the atmosphere. The trick is to increase biomass without disrupting the genes that plant breeders have incorporated into the lines.

Of the total genetic material (DNA) of corn, less than 1 percent contains coding genes, with the rest containing no genes and considered by many to be junk DNA. This non-coding DNA has been speculated to have an influence on various plant characteristics. For instance, the presence of the large segments of non-coding DNA in corn results in larger nuclei that, in turn, result in larger cells. Larger cells have been correlated with increased biomass. Manipulating the non–coding DNA is accomplished by chromosome engineering. Chromosome engineering is defined as the manipulation of the carriers of DNA of an organism, the chromosomes. Chromosome engineering techniques are now being used to develop corn of specific non-coding chromosome complements for increased biomass.

A. Lane Rayburn, Associate Professor of Cytogenetics
Department of Crop Sciences
(217) 334-4374; arayburn@illinois.edu

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Department of Crop Sciences
College of Agricultural, Consumer and Environmental Sciences
University of Illinois Extension
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