UW-Madison awarded FFAR grant to map corn drought tolerance genes

Carol Spaeth-Bauer
Wisconsin State Farmer
If drought occurs during flowering and grain-production period for corn, it can lead to reduced kernel size and lower crop yield.

Farmers are at the mercy of the weather when it comes to planting crops and extreme weather and drought are a growing challenge to the corn industry.

The Foundation for Food and Agriculture Research (FFAR) is awarding an $1.8 million grant through the Crops of the Future Collaborative to the University of Wisconsin–Madison to identify genetic markers in corn associated with drought tolerance and thereby accelerate the breeding of drought-resistant varieties. FFAR provided $900,000 and Inari, KWS and Syngenta contributed the matching funds for this three-year project through their participation in Crops of the Future, according to a UW-Madison press release.

“The future of farming means growing more food with fewer resources,” said FFAR Executive Director Sally Rockey. “Increased climate instability will continue shrinking aquifers and exacerbating droughts. FFAR is investing in this project to produce corn varieties designed to thrive with limited water. This project, supported through the FFAR Crops of the Future collaborative, ultimately helps farmers prepare for impending climate variability.”

If corn plants don't receive enough water when young, the root systems become underdeveloped, leading to nutrient deficiency, according to the press release. If drought occurs during flowering and grain-production period, it can lead to reduced kernel size and lower crop yield, resulting in lost money for producers. 

Researchers at the University of Wisconsin–Madison are focusing on drought stress during corn’s flowering and grain-growing lifecycle stages. By identifying the genes that together affect drought tolerance, the team can accelerate the development of drought-tolerant corn varieties.

“Nearly four million acres of corn are grown in Wisconsin, making it an important crop in our local economy,” says Kate VandenBosch, dean of the College of Agricultural and Life Sciences at UW–Madison. “I am pleased that we can contribute our expertise in corn genetics to understand the fundamental biological mechanisms that make the plant more resilient. This will lead to more efficient varieties benefiting farmers, consumers and the ecosystem.”

The Crops of the Future Collaborative "allows participants to collectively explore multiple areas of research based on a common need while minimizing risk prior to pursuing the research internally," according to the website. 

“Collaborating in this way to map Corn Drought Tolerance Genes is crucial to enabling crops to ‘keep up’ with environmental stressors and climate change,” said Trevor Hohls, Syngenta global head of seeds development. “Syngenta is excited to partner with FFAR and the academic community to bring direct benefit to farmers and help grow our scientific talent base.”

“As we look to the crops of the future, our farmers and agricultural systems will continue to be dealing with greater challenges such as climate instability and water availability. At KWS, we look beyond short-term success and focus on the development of sustainable and visionary solutions that increase food security and ensure a healthy world for future generations. This project is well aligned with our mission and we are pleased to be part of this public-private collaborative effort,” Dr. Derek Bartlem, Managing Director/Head of Research USA for KWS said in a press release. 

“Collaborations drive the change that addresses critical problems we face globally in agriculture,” Mark Stowers, Chief Operations Officer and President of North America at Inari, said in a press release. “Discovering the genetics behind drought tolerance will be important in the work we do at Inari to address to not only the needs of growers, but those of the planet as well.”

Carol Spaeth-Bauer at 262-875-9490 or Follow her on Twitter at cspaethbauer or Facebook at