The discovery will play an important role in easing the challenge the world is facing to feed nine billion people by 2050.
The study was published in the scientific journal The Plant Cell late last year.
The scientists, headed by Professor Andrea Everland, discovered the precise regulation of a plant hormone that converts a sterile structure into a seed-bearing one in important cereal crops.
The architecture of the inflorescence – the shoot system that bears the flowers – is a key determinant of yield potential in many crops. The inflorescence branch terminates in either a sterile bristle or a productive spikelet, which appear to be paired.
Studying a group of grasses called Seteria viridis, the scientists found the hormone, called brassinosteriods (BRs), controls the growth, development and immunity of the sterile bristles, as well as the transformation of these bristles into productive spikelets, which produce flowers and grain.
Stronger crops, better yield
Further research also determined how BRs could be manipulated to increase the number of flowers per spikelet from the single floret that typically forms.
“This work is a great demonstration of how Setaria viridis can be leveraged to gain fundamental insights into the mechanisms that govern seed production in the grasses – our most important group of plants that includes corn, sorghum, rice, wheat and barley,” said Professor Thomas Brutnell, director of the Enterprise Institute for Renewable Fuels at the Danforth Center.
According to Eveland, the discovery of the BR-dependent phenotypes represents two potential avenues for enhancing grain production in millets, including subsistence crops in many developing countries that remain largely untapped for genetic improvement.
It also means “we are just that much closer to designing and deploying optimal architectures for cereal crops. The prospect of leveraging these findings for improvement of related grasses that are also orphan crop species, such as pearl and foxtail millets, is especially exciting,” she said.
Authors: Jiani Yang, Shuiyi Thames, Norman B Best, Hui Jiang, Pu Huang, Brian P Dilkes and Andrea L Eveland.
The Plant Cell, 2017; tpc.00816.2017 DOI: 10.1105/tpc.17.00816.