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Unraveling Genetic Mysteries With Corn

The DNA sequence has long been given all the credit for controlling inherited traits, but organisms, it turns out, are more complex than that. Damon Lisch, a researcher with the Department of Plant and Microbial Biology, has been awarded $1.3 million to answer some basic scientific questions about inheritance in plants. His research is on epigenetic changes in corn — that is, changes that take place outside of DNA and can be passed from parent to child — or, in this case, to the next corn plant.

“Scientists love it when rules get broken, and epigenetics breaks a lot of the rules of inheritance, so this field has generated a lot of excitement,” said Lisch. His team of postdoctoral scholars and undergraduate students will carry out the research on the Oxford Tract near campus, in his lab, and at the Gill Tract in Albany, a field site for researchers affiliated with the College of Natural Resources.

The funding is part of a $3.4 million National Science Foundation shared grant, announced in August, that will enable Lisch and colleagues at other universities to do basic research using maize (corn) as a model organism.

Scientists have traditionally attributed the inheritance of traits entirely to what happens in the DNA sequence, Lisch said. “However, more recently we have found that modifications of DNA, and changes in the proteins that DNA is associated with, can also be transmitted from parent to offspring. Unlike changes in DNA sequence, epigenetic changes can be unstable and can be altered by environmental conditions. Thus, experiences that we have may be passed on to our children and even their children because of changes in epigenetic states.”

Lisch emphasized that this is basic research; he is not “trying to make a better corn plant.” Instead, he says, “we are using maize to help us to unravel some basic mysteries concerning the prevalence and importance of epigenetic changes in plants. Our grant is designed to discover how much epigenetic variation is present in maize, what causes it, and what effects it has on the maize plant.

“With luck, that will tell us a great deal about how plants grow and how they respond to their environment. This is important information if we are to grow enough food for the billions of additional people we will have in the next few decades.”