Self-Cloning Corn to Feed the Poor

From WSJ (originally carried in Technology Review):

If they’re allowed out of the lab and into the field, crops genetically engineered to reproduce through cloning could feed the world’s poor.

An hour outside of Mexico City, the taxi turns off the main road, and the noise and bustle of the highway fade away. Past a steel gate and a white guardhouse, we enter the well-tended grounds of the International Center for the Improvement of Maize and Wheat, known by its Spanish acronym, Cimmyt. It’s a farm masquerading as a small United Nations. An array of flags pays tribute to the countries that fund the organization’s work: creating better crops for the developing world’s poor farmers.

If only corn could reproduce by skipping pollination altogether and cloning itself. The idea is not as far-fetched as one might think. A few plants do this naturally, creating seeds without sex in a process called apomixis. Dandelions reproduce through apomixis; so do about 400 other plant species, including at least one wild relative of corn. So why not corn? If someone could flip a switch and make corn apomictic, Cimmyt might finally be able to make highly productive hardy strains poor farmers could share with their neighbors and replant from their own harvest year after year.

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Rajesh Jain

An Entrepreneur based in Mumbai, India.