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Rutgers geneticists discover probable causes of hybrid plant vigor

NEW BRUNSWICK/PISCATAWAY, N.J. Agricultural breeders have long observed that when plants or animals from different strains are interbred, the offspring tend to be stronger, healthier or generally more fit than either of their parents, although no one knew why this occurred. Now plant geneticists investigating the maize (corn) genome at Rutgers' Waksman Institute of Microbiology have discovered a possible explanation for this phenomenon, known as heterosis or hybrid vigor.

The Rutgers findings, presented by research associate Huihua Fu and Professor Hugo K. Dooner in the June 11 edition of the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, have important implications for the understanding of plant genetics as well as applications for improving agriculture.

"A clearer understanding of the basis of heterosis could help us develop new, more productive lines of corn or other plants," said Dooner.

The scientists began by taking a region of the maize genome and sequencing it, mapping the way the genetic material is laid out. To their surprise, when they sequenced the same region from another strain of maize, "everything was different," Dooner reported.

Some of the genes from the first strain seemed to be missing from the second, yet the characteristics the genes controlled were still being expressed; that is, their effects were still being observed in the plants themselves. The scientists concluded that closely related genes (known as members of a gene family) that affect the plant in similar ways must be located elsewhere in the maize's genetic material.

"This is an important finding," said Dooner. "If you have two members of a gene family but expressing themselves in two different tissues, then a crossbred plant could contain both of the genes and may therefore be better off."

This is particularly true under stressful environmental conditions where the offspring would be better equipped to respond to stress.
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Contact: Joseph Blumberg
blumberg@ur.rutgers.edu
732-932-7084 x652
Rutgers, the State University of New Jersey
11-Jun-2002


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