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A corn plant that yields more leaves and a larger stalk than normal may make good silage – or be a good biomass energy crop.

University of Illinois plant geneticist Stephen Moose developed a corn plant by doubling the gene known as Glossy 15. The gene, known for giving corn seedlings waxy coatings that act like sunscreen, slows down shoot maturation. So Moose turned up the action of the gene.

“What happens is that you get bigger plants, possibly because they’re more sensitive to the longer days of summer,” he says. The ears of corn have fewer seeds compared to normal corn plants and could be a good feed for livestock. “Although there is less grain, there is more sugar in the stalks, so we know the animal can eat it and will probably like it.” This type of corn plant may fit the grass-fed beef standard, Moose says.

Rather than go to the seed, the energy moves into the stalk and leaves. “We essentially can make any corn variety bigger with this gene. And it can be done in one cross.”

The right amount of the Glossy 15 gene must be used. If it slows growth too much, frost can kill the plant before it can grow.

One advantage to growing this sugar corn for biomass, as compared to the perennials switchgrass or miscanthus, is that it is an annual that can be rotated to another crop the next year if it attracted a pest or developed a disease.

Moose says it might make a good transition crop.

“We think it might take off as a livestock feed, because it’s immediate,” he says. “This would be most useful for on-farm feeding. So a farmer who has 50 steers could grow this and use the corn as feed and sell the stalks and sugar. It could be an alternative silage, because it has a longer harvest window than regular silage.”

For this sugar corn plant to become commercialized, it would have to get government approval, but Moose says that this is about as safe a gene as you can get. “It’s a gene that’s already in the corn – all we did was to put an extra copy in that amps it up.”

Findings from this research were published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America.