Decision time? Check out our latest product comparisons

Purdue researchers pursue cave corn

By

May 18, 2014

The new technique could allow corn to be grown in caves or on space colonies (Photo:  Ashl...

The new technique could allow corn to be grown in caves or on space colonies (Photo: Ashlyak/ml.wikipedia)

Image Gallery (2 images)

Scientists at Purdue University have come up with a way of growing corn in caves, but it doesn't involve some bizarre mating of maize and mushroom. Instead, they manipulated artificial light and temperature in such a way that the growth of the corn plants, while stunted, didn't significantly affect the seed yield. The finding could have a significant impact on the future of genetically modified crops by helping prevent genetically modified pollen escaping into the ecosystem.

Growing plants in caves and old mines may seem counter intuitive, but it’s a well-established practice in the field of genetic engineering. Manipulating genes in plants and animals can not only throw light on the mysteries of life, it also allows organisms to produce chemicals that would otherwise be difficult or expensive to obtain, such as sheep that give milk with spider silk mixed in, or bananas that contain vaccines. These are not always genes that you want to get out into the wild, so setting up a farm in a salt mine starts to make sense.

The only problem is that, obviously, caves make very poor substitutes for a few acres of prime farming land. Not the least reason is that many plants grow too high for underground galleries with low ceilings. It is possible to breed plants that are dwarf varieties, but that also runs into the problem of smaller plants with smaller yields.

Researchers Yang Yang, left, and Cary Mitchell (Photo: Purdue University)
Researchers Yang Yang, left, and Cary Mitchell (Photo: Purdue University)

In addition, some plants are more suited to genetic engineering than others. According to the Purdue team, corn is a "good candidate crop" for an engineered product because it has a high yield, and the genome is well mapped and is easily modified compared to, for example, mammal cells. Unfortunately, corn grows 8 ft (2.4 m) tall, which brings in that height problem again.

What the Purdue team did was take a page from commercial greenhouses that grow Christmas poinsettias and tricked the plants into stunting their own growth. They managed this by planting the corn in a disused mine chamber that was heavily insulated, so the environment could be carefully controlled in terms of light, temperature, and carbon dioxide levels.

The scientists then provided the corn plants with an artificial “day” of 16 hours of light at a temperature of 80⁰ F (26⁰ C) and 8 hours of darkness at 65⁰ F (18⁰ C). The clever bit is that for the first two hours of “daylight,” they dropped the temperature to 60⁰ F (15⁰ C). This altered the corn’s growth rate, so the stalks were up to 10 percent shorter, but the number and weight of the kernels was roughly the same.

"Grains of corn could be engineered to produce proteins that could be extracted and processed into medicine, pharmaceuticals and nutraceuticals such as essential vitamins," says Cary Mitchell, professor of horticulture. "This is a young industry, but what we've done is show that you can successfully grow these high-value crops in contained environments."

In addition to genetically modified crops, Mitchell says that the technique could have more general application because the natural coolness of mines and the ability to provide plants with high levels of carbon dioxide means that crops could be grown with a much greater degree of environmental control.

"Productivity in a controlled environment is superior to that in the field, and you can raise more than one crop per year," Mitchell says. "Controlled environment agriculture is going to be one of the big movements of the 21st century."

The team’s findings were published in Industrial Crops and Products.

Source: Purdue University

About the Author
David Szondy David Szondy is a freelance writer based in Monroe, Washington. An award-winning playwright, he has contributed to Charged and iQ magazine and is the author of the website Tales of Future Past.   All articles by David Szondy
8 Comments

Also handy in a post nuclear war human induced ice age.

Though research may need to extend to other things like maize and soy for fabrication of bio-diesel.

Nairda
18th May, 2014 @ 09:23 pm PDT

Go visit the marijuana growers, if anyone is an expert at growing anything inside, underground and out-of-sight it will be the grass folks.

StWils
19th May, 2014 @ 11:42 am PDT

Starship agriculture

REScott
19th May, 2014 @ 02:57 pm PDT

I agree with StWils - They would be the people to seek, they have had years of practice!

The main worry with such a 'closed' environment is the risk of a pathogen or nasty insect entering, without the outside predator mix it could be devastating.

The use of 'airlock' technology would be paramount.

The Skud
19th May, 2014 @ 06:59 pm PDT

"Grains of corn could be engineered to produce proteins that could be extracted and processed into medicine, pharmaceuticals and nutraceuticals such as essential vitamins," … but they can't just make it grow shorter?!

Martin Winlow
20th May, 2014 @ 01:05 am PDT

People eating this stuff will grow shorter too. Not on my dinner plate.

Kääriäinen Heikki Haykey
20th May, 2014 @ 01:44 pm PDT

I say we get these genetically modified organisms out all together. It's poison, and the GMO companies know it.

njaohnt
24th May, 2014 @ 04:45 pm PDT

"Mitchell says that the technique could have more general application because the natural coolness of mines and the ability to provide plants with high levels of carbon dioxide means that crops could be grown with a much greater degree of environmental control."

So, with increased carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, plants should grow better. Jolly good. Climate change has got some advantages!

windykites1
27th May, 2014 @ 05:03 pm PDT
Post a Comment

Login with your gizmag account:

Or Login with Facebook:


Related Articles
Looking for something? Search our 29,166 articles