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Science magazine reports:

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Supporters of genetic engineering have long promised it will help meet the world's growing demand for food. But despite the creation of many genetically modified (GM) pest- and herbicide-resistant crops, scientists haven't had much success with boosting crop growth. Now, researchers have for the first time shown they can reliably increase corn yields up to 10% by changing a gene that increases plant growth-regardless of whether growing conditions are poor or optimal.

"It's incredible," says Kan Wang, a molecular biologist at Iowa State University in Ames who was not involved in the new study. Aside from increasing corn harvests, she says, the new modifications should inspire other researchers in the quest for coaxing higher yields out of other crops.

The world's most widely planted GM crops, including soybean, corn, and cotton, were created with a few relatively simple genetic tweaks. By adding a single gene from bacteria to certain crop varieties, for example, scientists gave them the ability to make a protein that kills many kinds of insects.

Another simple genetic manipulation results in crops that withstand glyphosate or other herbicides; one benefit is that farmers can kill weeds without eroding the soil. Yet another protects crops during drought. But it's been a lot harder to come up with plants that also yield more grain in good conditions, because of the complex genetics involved in plant growth.

Starting in about 2000, companies around the world began to screen in earnest for single genes that could increase yield. Only a few identified genes have shown promise, and many companies have reduced or stopped screening for genes related to crop yield, because of the low rate of success.

But researchers at Corteva Agriscience, a chemical and seed company based in Wilmington, Delaware, decided to look at genes that function like master switches for growth and yield. They picked MADS-box genes, a group common in many plants, before settling on one (zmm28) to alter in corn plants. The challenge of working with genes that regulate development is making sure they turn on the right amount at the right time and in the right type of tissues. "It's awfully easy to get messed up plants" if the genes are too active, says Jeff Habben, a plant physiologist at Corteva who helped lead the research.

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