Disturbed by reports of organic corn contaminated by GMO varieties, Dr. Frank Kutka decided to use his personal interest in corn breeding for the greater good. “I started maize breeding work in the early 1990s in my garden thanks to numerous pointers from Dave Christensen [founder of the Montana-based farming network Seed We Need] and several public breeders.” Later, while earning his doctorate, Kutka trained with Dr. Margaret Smith, who heads the corn breeding project at Cornell. Under Smith’s tutelage, Kutka learned the critical specifics he had been missing, as well as more practical skills.
“Maize is one of the easiest plants to<0x202F>work with<0x202F>and anyone with some basic information, simple gear, determination,<0x202F>careful observation skills and<0x202F>time can undertake it and get useful and interesting results,” he says. “Generally, the more time involved, the more interesting the results. The plant has natural, and therefore free, genes for resistance to most insects and diseases already present, and for tolerance to most climatic conditions.”
Kutka’s current research is purely extracurricular. During the day, he coordinates the Sustainable Ag Research and Education program at North Dakota State University. He experiments with corn at home in his spare time. Via his affiliation with Seed We Need, Kutka garnered an $11,000 grant from the Organic Farming Research Foundation to continue a project he began in 2001 at Cornell. This work may have a profound impact on the organic corn industry by reducing headaches from transgenic pollen cross-pollination.
“I hate having to spend hundreds of dollars to make sure that transgenic garbage has not contaminated my crops, and I<0x202F>am hardly the only one,” Kutka explains. “Corn is a critical crop for many organic farmers I have met and it needs to be kept clean to meet NOP rules and consumer desires.”
The varieties will also be resistant to any other breed that doesn’t have the particular trait with which Kutka and Smith are crossing. The trait is called gametophytic incompatibility, and it stifles pollen tube growth in corn that’s crossed with a variety not carrying the same gene that creates the incompatibility. The result is reduced or completely stifled unintentional crossing. There is more than one gene that creates gametophytic incompatibility.
The gene called GA1S was originally identified in South American popcorns. It is currently used in popcorn to prevent out-crossing with field corn. Kutka and Smith will cross GA1S into some populations of yellow field corn and also develop new lines of blue field corn. Using blue corn is more than an aesthetic choice. One way to determine whether an incompatibility trait is present, and in a fixed state, is to out-cross it. The researcher’s job is made easier when he can make a cross with something that leaves a mark. Blue corn tends to leave blue kernels; it’s a dominant trait. By developing some early blue inbred lines, Kutka and Smith will be able to use those as testers for some of the yellow lines. Having blue corn available for the specialty markets is a nice bonus.
Since there is a patent on the idea of crossing GA1S with certain varieties of yellow corn, the researchers will also use the GA2S gene to develop populations from which inbred varieties can be derived for hybrid breeding in the future. University of Wisconsin researchers found GA2S in Mexico, in some of corn’s wild relatives. Crosses and crossing processes with GA2S are not currently patented, so Kutka and Smith will begin crosses with that gene this summer.
Upon completion of his breeding work, Kutka will contact organic seed companies with large breeding programs to explore partnership opportunities.
Kutka has already made some of his material available to plant breeders at North Carolina State University. Major Goodman and Chris Reberg-Horton got the material last year and are exploring similar research from different angles. Reberg-Horton is using it in organic trials, while part of Goodman’s goal is to create GMO-resistant varieties for use by mid-Atlantic farmers using conventional growing systems.
Goodman made a number of experimental hybrids for use in yield trials. Those yield trials are being grown this summer, so he doesn’t yet have any results. However, he says the material looks so promising that he anticipates continuing the research for at least six years. “It’s unrelated to the material we have in hand, which is a helpful point,” explains the NCSU veteran researcher. “It’s derived from pretty good material, and its maturity is the sort of thing we were looking for, so we’re quite grateful to have this material.”
Their goal is to make something available to commercial farmers by 2016. “At this point there are fewer and fewer varieties that are not transgenic and it is becoming harder and harder to grow corn that is not contaminated in some way with those genes,” says Kutka. Given the limited availability of non-contaminated corn, the hobbyist-researcher feels under the gun. “I am moving as quickly as I can.”
The author is a freelance writer based in Mass-achusetts and a monthly contributor to Growing.