Maize crops withered in Texas this year in a season of record-breaking heat and drought. In the Texas High Plains region, crops struggled to survive on as little as one-tenth of the normal rainfall.
“Matter of fact, it may be the all-time driest year on record,” says Thomas Marek, an irrigation expert with Texas A&M University.
Experts warn that climate change is likely to threaten world food supplies as temperature extremes cut harvests of important food crops. Scientists are working to develop new varieties that are adapted to a changing climate.
So, while this was a terrible year for farmers, for Marek and his colleagues, it was just about perfect. At a research station an hour north of Amarillo, they work to prepare farmers for hotter, drier years ahead.
Hot weather and drought turn maize plants brown. That means the end of photosynthesis, which is how maize plants turn sunlight into starchy kernels.
But researchers identified genes that help some tropical maize varieties stay green longer under these conditions.
Plants that stay green longer produce bigger kernels in a drought year. The team mated maize with the stay-green genes with other high-producing varieties to find offspring with the best of both. They used traditional breeding rather than genetic engineering, which is more heavily regulated.