COLUMBIA, Mo. — Understanding how plant genomes are packaged can help produce more predictable and consistent plants. A University of Missouri-Columbia researcher says a study on regulating gene expression in corn might also lead to a better understanding of how animal and human DNA is packaged and the diseases that can result when something goes wrong in that process.

Karen Cone, associate professor of biological science, will use the $6.6 million grant she received from the National Science Foundation to study the function of 150 to 200 genes involved in the DNA packaging of corn. The award was the largest single grant out of the NSF’s $66 million plant genome research program awarded last fall. Cone will collaborate with researchers at five other universities.

By exploring the inner workings of plant genes and the role genetics play in plant development, the research can help plant breeders produce better plants and farmers better crops in the long run, Cone said.

“If we discover how plant DNA packaging controls gene expression, then we will be able to manipulate the outcomes of genetic experiments and predict how genes get turned on and off in the right place at the right time in plant development,” Cone said. “Then we can help plant breeders figure out how to take advantage of what we have learned about DNA packaging and the relationship it has on gene activity.”

The research can have more widespread impact because what is learned in corn can be used for research on animals and humans.

“Our results might eventually have an impact on human disease where a defect in DNA packaging is the root of the problem,” Cone said. “All eukaryotic organisms with a nucleus package DNA in basically the same way.” Eukaryotes are characterized by cells with a discrete nucleus containing genetic material and have evolved as a group to include humans and all other animals.

Cone said the collaborative aspect of the NSF research is valuable because it avoids duplication of research and can bring quicker findings.

“There is no way we could do all of these experiments by ourselves; it would take 10 years to try to do what we’re trying to accomplish in four,” Cone said. “It is better to team up and take advantage of people’s collective experience and expertise.”