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Date:

January 12, 2011

Subject:

Anti-GM Rules Holding Back EU Farming; GM Scientist Conviction Overturned; Patient Science Is GM Food’s Best Hope

 

* Anti-GM Rules 'Holding Back EU Farming'
* Peruvian Biologist's Defamation Conviction Overturned
* U.S. Scientists Use GE to Protect Vital Cassava Farming in Africa
* Seed of Change: America May Shift Its Policy on Genetically Modified Crop
* Conference: Leveraging Agriculture for Improving Nutrition and Health
* Patient Science Is GM Food’s Best Hope
* Drought-tolerant Maize Gets US Debut: Seed Companies Race
* Technique Allows Researchers to Identify Key Maize Genes for Increased Yield

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Anti-GM Rules 'Holding Back EU Farming'

- Plymouth Herald (UK)< Jan 12, 20111
- http://www.thisisplymouth.co.uk/regionalbusiness/Anti-GM-rules-holding-EU-farming/article-3088698-detail/article.html
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The adoption of genetically modified crop growing in Europe is inevitable, if its farmers were to succeed in producing sufficient food to feed an ever-increasing world population.

That was the conclusion of speakers with experience of agriculture in other parts of the world, concerned that Europe was being left behind by the rest of the world because of negative rules and culture.

Jim McCarthy, the director of Irish-based Agricultural Capital Partners, with large grain-farming interests in Argentina, Australia, the USA and New Zealand, said European politicians had allowed "mis-truth and misinformation" rule about GM crops. "You are just not making the case for what you need," he said. "If you are really serious about growing crops, you need GM as much as you need basic crop rotation."

GM was the most up-to-date technology available, he insisted, adding: "What GM crops mean is greatly reduced inputs, much more consistent yields, because of multiple-trait stacking, and a greatly improved environment. With GM the farmer simply reduces his inputs and increases his production."

He added: "We shall never have this technology in Europe until farmers start demanding it. Sadly farming and farm science in Europe are afraid of eco-fundamentalists. But we need to demand a science-based future."

He was joined on the platform by Uruguayan Marcelo Secco, commercial director of the beef and lamb enterprise FrigorificoMacuarembo-Marfrig, with worldwide outlets, who said he failed to understand the stance of the anti-GM lobby. "Clearly we need to have a GM discussion on a world level," he said. "But we don't encounter any anti-GM movements in South America."

Bill Clark, a director of Rothamsted Research, told his audience that if the "perfect storm" of energy, water and food shortages forecast by Government Chief Scientist John Beddington for 2030 were to be headed off – "a really difficult task" – there should be step-changes in agricultural production, which certainly involved GM crops.

The introduction of new, safe pesticides was already being hampered by EU legislation, he said, but GM crops, (which he preferred to call biotech crops), were banned in the EU, even though they were being grown without problems on 135 million hectares globally. "Europe is in very real danger of falling behind," he said. "We are inevitably going to have to grasp this technology."

He said teenagers did not care about GM, because they knew that almost any processed food already had GM origins. In a food-security debate the EU regulations, which limited production, were "morally reprehensible."

Widespread GM trials would mean the public became increasingly aware of their benefit, he insisted. "At the moment we hold them behind high fences, which makes it look as though there's something wrong about them. There are lots of GM biotech solutions which are left on the shelf because of EU policy – but that situation should be contrasted with China, which is embracing its own GM technology."

Speaking about livestock innovation, Chris Warkup, of Biosciences Knowledge Transfer Network, said GM technology offered a vast range of opportunities; from breeding disease-immune cattle in Africa to chickens that could counter avian flu.

He said: "We are irrational about the assessments of risks in the EU. I would advocate large-scale trial areas of GM crops to let people see how safe the technology really is. There is an irrational obsession with processes, rather than outcomes."

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Peruvian Biologist's Defamation Conviction Overturned

- Lucas Laursen, Nature, January 12, 2011

A defamation case that hinges on a dispute over the presence of genetic modification in Peruvian maize crops, and that has attracted international attention, has moved back to square one — with a twist.

Biologist Ernesto Bustamante Donayre was last April found guilty of defamation — a criminal offence in Peru — for publicly criticizing a report published by a fellow biologist. Last month, however, the conviction was overturned: the appeal judge found that a lower court had not demonstrated that Bustamante had sufficient motivation to harm or defame his alleged victim. A recent government study of the crops in question may shape the outcome of any subsequent proceedings, Bustamante says.

The case began in 2008, when Antonietta Ornella Gutiérrez Rosati of La Molina National Agricultural University in Lima accused Bustamante, the scientific director of private genetic-screening firm BioGenómica, of defaming her by publicly criticizing a study she wrote and publicized that reported evidence of transgenic maize in Peru. Peru does not yet have regulations to control or permit the growing of genetically modified crops, and their illegal introduction is a source of lively debate — in which Bustamante has participated — in the Peruvian media.

In late 2007, Gutiérrez informed a government agency and a newspaper that she had found a P34S promoter and the transgenes NK603 and BT11 in 14 out of 42 maize samples collected from plots in the valley of Barranca, some 200 kilometres north of Lima. Bustamante responded with an opinion article in Peruvian newspaper El Comercio that called the report's conclusions "absurdly improbable" and based on "gross procedural errors". He also gave radio interviews and challenged Gutiérrez to submit her report for peer review.

Gutiérrez took Bustamante to court, and in April 2010 a judge found him guilty of defamation, ordering him to pay a fine of 5,000 soles (US$1,800) and placing restrictions on his travel. In 2009, Gutiérrez also presented her paper at a conference of the Peruvian Genetics Society in Cuzco, of which she was then president.

More than 650 scientists from around the world signed a public petition over the case, among them Bustamante's graduate instructor, Nobel laureate Hamilton Smith of Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, Maryland, who wrote, "We trained him to be critical of his work, and that of others, and to always seek the truth … It seems almost unimaginable to hear of his legal troubles for simply practicing good science."

Commenting on the latest judgement, Ricardo Fujita Alarcón, a geneticist at the University of San Martín de Porres in Lima and a member of PeruBiotec, a pro-biotechnology group of which Bustamante is also a member, says, "This will have a positive effect because it shows people you can't coerce scientists using judicial means."
Round two

Last month's overruling directs both parties to return to a conciliation meeting, but does not prevent Gutiérrez bringing a renewed suit in a different lower court, which is allowable under Peruvian law. "If he's prosecuted again the whole thing would go back to the way it was," says biochemist Paul Englund, also of Johns Hopkins University, a colleague of Bustamante's. Englund says he fears that Bustamante's conviction stifled scientific debate. "He's someone that speaks his mind honestly, based on data. It's outrageous that he's being criminally prosecuted for it," he adds.

Gutiérrez, who did not respond to an interview request, may still take the suit to another lower court, although the appeals judge recommended that the case go to a pre-trial conciliation hearing first. According to Bustamante, he now stands a better chance of getting a favourable outcome because, since his conviction, the National Institute for Agrarian Innovation (INIA) in Lima has tried to replicate Gutiérrez's findings in Barranca but has failed to find genetically modified varieties of native maize, despite examining 162 samples.

"In the conciliation hearing I'll most likely use that as a proof that what I said at that time was later found to be actually true," Bustamante says. A finding in his favour will discourage other scientists from taking each other to court, Bustamante adds. "It would have been nice to have a judge come out and say, 'Yes, science should not be taken to court', but that's not for lawyers to say. That's for us scientists to state and to express and to fight for."

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U.S. Scientists Use Genetic Engineering to Protect Vital Cassava Farming in Africa

- Ann Delphus, Invention and Technology News, January 11, 2011
- http://news.inventhelp.com/Articles/Food-Beverage/Inventions/cassava-farming-12528.aspx

Cassava is a starchy root crop whose tubers are a primary food source for about 800 million people worldwide, including about 250 million people who live in Africa. A relative to the rubber plant, cassava grows well in marginal conditions: its leaves remain green during Africa’s seasonal droughts. The fallen leaves give enough nutrients back to the soil that the subsistence farmers can grow it without fertilizer. Also, the cassava tolerates poor farming, making it a crop that can be grown, for example, by a farmer who is weak from malaria.

For having such a central role in the diets of so many, though, the cassava tuber is a relatively poor source of some important nutrients. Dr. Richard Sayre, head of the BioCassava Plus Project, envisioned a "super" cassava with more protein, zinc, iron, vitamin A, and vitamin E. Additional goals for the Project included increasing the size of its tubers, reducing its toxin levels (tubers contain varying levels of a form of poisonous cyanide), and boosting the plant’s resistance to diseases.

Five years ago, the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation gave Dr. Sayre and the BioCassava Plus Project a $12 million grant to use genetic engineering to significantly improve the cassava. Because cassava is propagated by cuttings, genetic engineering methods represent a time-saving shortcut over conventional selective breeding. Before too long, however, cassava "improvement" was forced to encompass the challenge of a terrible new viral disease that still threatens Africa’s food supply. It injected a new urgency to the scientists’ work.

A virus mutation in 2004 spurred an "explosive" spread of the Brown Streak Disease from the East Africa coastal lowlands to the higher inland areas, including Uganda. These viruses are spread by tiny whiteflies. Unlike the tamer coastal version, the newer Uganda strain kills cassava plants and riddles the tubers with brown discoloration, rendering them inedible, as shown in the photo. Brown Streak Disease (for its markings on stems) has created an emergency for many farmers who are left without enough plants to produce cuttings for the upcoming season.

In the face of this cassava crisis, plant scientists have met or exceeded the goals of their research proposals, including resistance to the devastating new virus. In mid-2009, Dr.Claude Fauquet, an expert in the single-strand DNA geminiviruses that infect cassava, announced that he and his team had succeeded in creating a strain of cassava that is resistant to both versions of Cassava Brown Streak Disease. They used the same technique – called RNA interference – that had been used to create disease-specific resistance in new papaya and plum tree varieties. Dr. Fauquet’s achievement with cassava that is resistant to the Brown Streak Diseases builds on the success in increasing protein by a factor of 4, iron by a factor of 4, and vitamin A by a factor of 30, not to mention the other goals reached or exceeded.

The hope is that the new cassava will succeed during field trials in East Africa and be available to the farmers there by 2015, if not sooner. (Genetically modified crops are always carefully field-tested.)

The epicenter for U.S.-based cassava research is in St. Louis, Missouri, at the Donald Danforth Plant Sciences Center. It is home to Dr. Fauquet as well as the BioCassava Plus Project and Dr. Sayre, the grant awardee, who joined the staff in 2008. Indeed, the DanforthCenter has been a powerhouse for cassava research for a long time. Although the Center was founded in 1998, two of its most esteemed plant virologists, Dr. Fauquet and Dr. Roger Beachy, were pioneers in this area of study: in 1991, while at the Scripps Research Institute, they co-founded the International Laboratory for Tropical Agriculture Biotechnology (ILTAB).
Dr. Fauquet also founded (and still co-chairs) the Global Cassava Project. He pushed for the sequencing of the cassava genome, an initiative also funded by the Gates Foundation. The genome sequence was completed in 2009 by a team led by University of Arizona scientists and a subsidiary of Roche called 454 Life Sciences, the world leader in genome-related technology. Free access to the genome data is expected to be an invaluable resource to future endeavors.
Interest in cassava extends beyond food: China now grows it for ethanol, and a recent study of it grown in Alabama for ethanol was promising.

Indications are that experienced plant scientists in Africa who were, in large part, trained in the United States, are recognizing the need for more agriculture doctoral programs in their universities. They have been inspired by the many scientists who are responding to Africa’s cassava crisis. They liken current efforts to help Africa’s farmers to those of agriculture professors of the U.S. land grant universities during India’s Green Revolution. They helped India learn to "feed itself" during the 1950s to 1960s; by the late 1980s, India had become a net exporter of food.

Today, genetic engineering is not without its critics. However, according to a 2009 report in the Chronicle of Higher Education, most students studying agriculture in Africa’s universities argue in favor of genetic engineering. One of the new doctoral students interviewed for that article noted that GE technology could halve the time required to develop better crops for the hungry continent. "Africa missed out on the Green Revolution," he said, "so we shouldn’t miss out on the Genetic Revolution too."

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Seed of Change: America May Shift Its Policy on Genetically Modified Crops

- The Economist, 6th Jan 2011. http://www.economist.com/node/17855118?story_id=17855118&fsrc=rss

EUROPEANS are notoriously squeamish about genetically modified (GM) crops. In America, however, they reign supreme. Since farmers first planted GM soya in 1996, engineered crops have steadily conquered America’s vast farmland. Last year 93% of cotton and soya acres contained genetically engineered crops, as did 86% of corn acres. In the past the Agriculture Department (USDA) has placed relatively meagre limits on this expansion. This month, however, that may change.

Alfalfa, that humble feedstuff, is at the heart of an intense debate. The USDA will soon decide how to regulate Roundup Ready alfalfa, engineered by Monsanto to resist a chemical used to kill weeds. The department may allow GM alfalfa but, for the first time, set strict rules on the extent of planting allowed. This could be a model for the future, the biggest policy change for GM crops since their introduction. Tom Vilsack, the agriculture secretary, says that the issue is not whether GM alfalfa is safe—the USDA maintains that it is. Rather, the question is how regulations might help engineered crops exist beside conventional and organic ones. It is a fraught endeavour.

The rule on alfalfa aims to ease growing trouble, on the fields and in court. America’s farms have seen two divergent trends over the past 15 years: the rise of GM crops and, on a smaller scale, an expanding market for organic products. Theirs is not a peaceful relationship. Wind has an unfortunate tendency to blow GM seed into organic fields. Farmers, like all good Americans, are stubborn and litigious. Lawsuits about contaminated fields have moved through the courts. One such case concerns GM alfalfa.

In 2005 the USDA approved Roundup Ready alfalfa. Opponents of GM crops filed a lawsuit soon after and, in 2007, a federal judge ordered the USDA to conduct a more lengthy review. After publishing a draft report in 2009 and receiving some 244,000 comments, the USDA issued its final report on December 16th. The department presented two preferred options. First, it may allow GM alfalfa to be grown freely, like GM corn or soya. In the second choice, it would approve planting with rules to prevent the contamination of non-GM crops. For example, five miles (8km) would have to separate GM alfalfa from conventional or organic alfalfa fields. The USDA will receive comments on the plan until January 24th. A decision is expected soon after, so that farmers can prepare for spring planting.

A frenzy of activity has followed December’s report, with Mr Vilsack encouraging further discussion among farm groups. At a meeting at the USDA on December 20th, organic advocates demanded more, such as compensation for farmers whose crops are contaminated. Big farm associations were horrified—by the proposed rule and by the meeting itself. “What the USDA did on December 20th was akin to the European process,” shudders Russell Williams of the American Farm Bureau Federation. Mr Williams fears that the rule on alfalfa augurs further limits on GM crops.

Mr Vilsack insists that his department does not prefer one type of farming over another. Rather, he wants to help them coexist more peacefully. Without any action, Mr Vilsack argues, courts will dictate the future of GM, organic and conventional crops. (In August a court halted planting of GM beets pending a review, and another lawsuit aims to stop GM eucalyptus trees.) Mr Vilsack’s course will not be smooth. Opponents of GM crops sued the department over its original decision on alfalfa. Now GM advocates may sue the department over its new one.

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Conference: Leveraging Agriculture for Improving Nutrition and Health

- February 10, 2011 - February 12, 2011; New Delhi, India; By invitation only

http://www.ifpri.org/event/leveraging-agriculture-improving-nutrition-and-health

How can the potential of agriculture be unleashed to reduce malnutrition and ill health?

Agriculture impacts poor people’s nutrition and health, and people’s nutrition and health in turn affects their productivity. As a supplier of food, a source of income, and an engine of growth, agriculture has the potential to significantly and sustainably improve poor people’s nutrition and health.

This conference will inform, influence, and catalyze action to better use investments in agriculture to achieve nutrition security and good health for the world’s poor people.

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Patient Science Is GM Food’s Best Hope

- Michael Skapinker, Financial Times, January 10 2011 22:10 ft.com

In 2007, the US embassy in Paris recommended that Washington inflict “some pain” on the European Union over its restrictions on genetically modified food, according to a recent WikiLeaks leak.

The embassy suggested the US take action against some European products. “In our view, Europe is moving backwards not forwards on this issue,” the cable said.

What was behind this outburst? The previous year, the World Trade Organisation had ruled that a six-year EU moratorium on imports of GM foods and crops had contravened international trade rules. It had also condemned six EU members for banning products previously approved by Brussels.

But the 1,000-page report was complex and did not question the right of countries to ban GM products on environmental or health grounds.

What adds to the irritation of the US, the world’s largest producer of genetically modified crops, is that no GM product has so far been shown to cause any harm to anyone.

But this omits political reality. EU members are democracies. They have to listen to their people, who have a widespread and long-standing horror of genetically modified foods.

When Monsanto, the US group, attempted to introduce GM products into Europe in the 1990s, there was uproar. (Americans are actually not crazy about GM products either . A survey last year by Deloitte, the auditing firm, found that 34 per cent of Americans were either “extremely” or “very” concerned about eating GM foods and a further 36 per cent were “somewhat concerned”.

Can anything be done to change these attitudes? Yes, but it requires persuasion rather than force-feeding. Take two other issues: the measles, mumps and rubella vaccine, and the debate over organic food.

The MMR saga began with a 1998 paper in The Lancet suggesting a link between the vaccine and autism. The paper has been thoroughly discredited. The journal retracted it last year. Shortly after that, the UK’s General Medical Council barred Dr Andrew Wakefield, the article’s principal author, from practising. It found he had conducted investigations without the necessary approval and had improperly accepted money from lawyers acting for allegedly affected children. The British Medical Journal last week claimed that Dr Wakefield had reached his conclusions by falsifying medical records. Dr Wakefield told CNN that he was the victim of “a ruthless, pragmatic attempt to crush any attempt to investigate valid vaccine safety concerns.”

His paper caused great damage. MMR uptake plunged and, in 2008, measles was declared endemic in England and Wales for the first time in 14 years. But the vaccination rate slowly rising. After falling to a low in England of 79.9 per cent in 2003-4, the MMR vaccination rate rose to 88.2 per cent in 2009-10, almost to where it was before The Lancet paper. Although this is still below the World Health Organisation target of 95 per cent, it is testament to the effort of doctors and scientists to prove Dr Wakefield wrong.

The organic food debate is different. The stakes are lower. Organic food does no harm. But then neither, it seems, does non-organic food. The food safety authorities of the UK, France and Sweden had declared that, on health grounds, there was nothing to choose between the two. In 2009, a review of the research by the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine found the same. The organic industry reacted with fury, but consumers listened. Organic food sales in the UK fell 12.9 per cent in 2009. The Soil Association, which champions organic, attributed this to the economic downturn, but sales of Fairtrade goods, which also tend to be more expensive, have risen.

Although very different, these three cases do have common characteristics. The opposition to GM products, to MMR and to non-organic food are all driven by distaste for apparently interfering with the natural way of doing things, whether inserting a gene into a plant or animal, “overloading” a child’s immune system or putting pesticides on crops. What they have in common, too, is deep suspicion of the companies that benefit.

That means companies are not likely to be believed. Regulators and governments can help, but they sometimes have credibility problems too. It is independent scientists who make a difference, ed ucating and explaining, as they have done in the case of both MMR and organic food.

There is a case for GM food and its pest-resistant properties, particularly at a time of rising food prices. But making it will require time, patience and giving people the right to make up their own minds, which is why the European insistence that GM products be labelled is quite correct. Changing attitudes will not be easy, but it will be more effective than threatening consumers with pain.

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Drought-tolerant Maize Gets US Debut: Seed Companies Race to Tap Multibillion-Dollar Market

- Jeff Tollefson , Nature 469, 144 , Jan 11, 2011
http://www.nature.com/news/2011/110111/full/469144a.html

When the planting season arrives later this year, farmers in the United States will have a new way to safeguard their crops from drought. Last week, DuPont subsidiary Pioneer Hi-Bred International, headquartered in Johnston, Iowa, announced plans to release a series of hybrid maize (corn) strains that can flourish with less water. The seeds will compete with another maize strain unveiled last July by Swiss agribusiness Syngenta. Both companies used conventional breeding rather than genetic engineering to produce their seeds.

Pioneer says that field studies show its new hybrids will increase maize yields by 5% in water-limited environments, such as the western states of the intensively agricultural Corn Belt region. That compares with the 15% yield gain promised by Syngenta for its maize. Both companies, as well as seed firm Monsanto, based in St Louis, Missouri, are also working on transgenic maize varieties, hoping to tap into a multibillion-dollar market (see Nature 466, 548–551; 2010).

In theory, drought-tolerant varieties could fill the gap left in maize supplies in recent years as stocks have been diverted for ethanol production. But not everybody is convinced that these crops will make a big difference. "It's good news, but it's not great news," says David Zilberman, an agricultural economist at the University of California, Berkeley. No crop will survive a severe drought, he says, and other factors such as nutrient availability and soil quality are at play during water shortages, which tend to be more frequent but less severe than droughts. "It will be useful for a small number of really important areas," Zilberman says, "but my feeling is that people expect altogether too much from drought tolerance."

Creating drought-tolerant plants has proved to be a difficult challenge for plant breeders. Whereas resistance to a particular herbicide might be pinned down to one gene, the response to drought plays out across the genome. A plant's resilience also depends on when drought strikes — early or late in the life cycle, for instance — and on which nutrients are available. Moreover, varieties that perform better when thirsty often underperform when water is plentiful. The industry researchers identified thousands of genes associated with drought tolerance, then incorporated them into their hybrids through conventional breeding. "All of this technology has just come together beautifully in the past ten years," says Jeff Schussler, senior research manager at Pioneer.

The new varieties will be marketed only in the United States, but efforts to develop drought-tolerant maize are also under way in Africa and Asia. Working with the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and other donors, international agricultural research centres have already introduced dozens of conventional drought-tolerant varieties into 13 of the most important maize-producing countries in sub-Saharan Africa. These new varieties now make up 15–25% of the 19 million hectares of maize planted in these countries each year, according to Marianne Bänziger, deputy director-general for research and partnerships at the International Maize and Wheat Improvement Center (CIMMYT) in Mexico City. A recent study by CIMMYT and its partners suggests that the new varieties could increase yields by 10–34%.

The big seed companies are also contributing expertise. Last year, South Africa was home to the first field trial for a transgenic drought-tolerant maize crop, incorporating a gene from the variety currently under development by Monsanto. Meanwhile, CIMMYT recently partnered with the Syngenta Foundation for Sustainable Agriculture, based in Basel, Switzerland, to expand its drought-tolerant maize programme. "Within five years, we hope to have crops in Asia," Bänziger says.

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Technique Allows Researchers to Identify Key Maize Genes for Increased Yield

- Krishna Ramanujan Chronicle Online Jan. 10, 2011
http://www.news.cornell.edu/stories/Jan11/BucklerLeaf.html






Yield increases in corn have mostly resulted from adaptations made by breeders to maize so crops can be planted closer together.

A study published online in Nature Genetics on Jan. 9 has identified the genes related to leaf angle in corn (maize) -- a key trait for planting crops closer together, which has led to an eight-fold increase in yield since the early 1900s.

The study, led by researchers from Cornell and the U.S. Department of Agriculture -- Agricultural Research Service (USDA-ARS) at Cornell and North Carolina State University, is the first to relate genetic variation across the entire maize genome to traits in a genomewide association study. The researchers have so far located 1.6 million sites on the maize genome where one individual may vary from another, and they used those sites to identify the genes related to changes in leaf angle that have allowed greater crop density.

Yield increases have mostly resulted from adaptations made by breeders to maize so crops can be planted closer together. Along with changes in roots and nutrient uptake that also play roles in increased crop densities, the leaves of maize crop plants have become more upright to maintain access to sunlight in crowded plots.

The team of researchers found that natural mutations in genes that affect ligules -- the first thick part of the leaf where it wraps around the stalk -- contributed to more upright leaves. Also, the changes in leaf angle result from many small genetic effects added together; while leaf angles may vary from one maize variety to another by up to 80 degrees, the biggest effect from a single gene was only 1.5 degrees.

"Although each gene and variant has a small effect, we can make very accurate predictions," said Ed Buckler, the paper's senior author, a USDA-ARS research geneticist in Cornell's Institute for Genomic Diversity and a Cornell adjunct associate professor of plant breeding and genetics. Lead authors include Feng Tian, a postdoctoral researcher in Buckler's lab, and Peter Bradbury, a computational biologist with the USDA-ARS in Ithaca.

The genomewide association study method allows researchers to examine a corn plant's genome and predict a trait with 80 percent accuracy. This would be analogous to predicting the height of a person by sequencing and analyzing their genes, or genotyping a seed to predict traits of the plant, said Buckler. The methodology may be applied to other traits, crops and species, including animals.

"This method will allow the intelligent design of maize around the world for high-density planting, higher yields and disease resistance," said Buckler.

In this study, the researchers had the advantage of making controlled crosses in maize plants to capture a great deal of genetic variation in the population of maize they studied, something that cannot be done when studying human genetics. The study offers proof that variation in traits is the sum of many small effects in genes, a hypothesis that has also been proposed by some human geneticists.

Also in the Jan. 9 online issue of Nature Genetics, a companion paper by the same research team, but led by those at USDA-ARS and North Carolina State University, used the same technique to identify key genes associated with southern leaf blight in maize.

The study was funded by the National Science Foundation and USDA-ARS. James Holland, a researcher at USDA-ARS and North Carolina State University, is also a senior co-author of the study.