A cross of maize plants adapted to the tropics with popular Midwestern corn hybrids has created a new type of plant with the potential to yield three crops: sugar, grain and biomass.
Scientists at the University of Illinois began crossing these corn lines in an attempt to develop a corn plant that would produce competitive amounts of biomass while using less nitrogen. Tropical temperate hybrids have delayed flowering and a greatly reduced seed set, yet still accumulate a lot of carbon, or sugar, says Illinois plant geneticist Stephen Moose. Bring that together with a Midwestern corn hybrid bred for higher grain yields and you've created a new variety with sugar and grain potential, he says.
The yields of this new corn, even under low nitrogen, beat the record for switchgrass yields in the Midwest, Moose says.
"These plants are massive,” Moose says. "They have big stalks, and unlike normal corn where stalks become hollow as they supply the grain with nutrients, these corn stalks are all filled up inside with sugar.”
Initial observations on small plots during the past few years are promising, he adds. In 2008, Moose and crop scientist Fred Below expanded the size and locations of their tests for yield of corn grain, sugar and biomass for better data for comparison. They found big differences dependent on location. In the north, the flowering and maturity suppressed more; in the south, there was less suppression and more grain.
Moose concedes that if grain is what you want, sugar corn isn't the answer. The grain yield from sugar corn might make a suitable livestock feed, though.
The big advantages of sugar corn are the high biomass and the sugar-filled stalk. "The idea is that this corn could be like a temperate sugar cane that can be grown in non-tropical environments, like the U.S. Corn Belt,” Moose says.