Mutant maize

The image above shows a tiny, immature ear of maize. It’s no ordinary maize, however: the irregular shape of the tip of the ear – a stem cell reservoir called the meristem – is a tell-tale sign of a mutation in a protein receptor called FEA2 that affects plant growth.

The receptor was first identified in 2001, but researchers at Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory in the US have recently discovered how to manipulate it with peptides, or protein fragments, to release different messenger chemicals to increase the growth of the plant. In addition to maize, the researchers are also experimenting with using FEA2 to boost yield in sweetcorn, tomato and mustard plants.

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