Maize seed ‘Feed me’ gene identified

Maize (Corn) ears in China. Photo: Eloise Phipps, CIMMYT

Maize (Corn) ears in China. Photo: Eloise Phipps, CIMMYT

Unlike ‘Audrey 2’ — the plant which ate mem­bers of the cast from ‘The Little Shop of Horrors’ (botan­ic­ally sus­pect but with some good songs) — the maize seed grows on the cob by extract­ing good­ies from the mother plant.

YouTube has a great video of a pro­duc­tion of Little Shop of Horrors: Feed me Seymour — embed­ding not pos­sible so you need to jump to the link.

Now research­ers at the Universities of Warwick and Oxford have dis­covered a key gene in this feed­ing pro­cess – pro­sa­ic­ally named Meg1*. It seems that Meg1 con­verts the tis­sues sur­round­ing the devel­op­ing embryo into a placenta-like struc­ture. The big sur­prise is that Meg1 is expressed only from the maternally-inherited copy, with the male copy remain­ing silenced. Some evol­u­tion­ary bio­lo­gists believe that this parent-of-origin ‘gene imprint­ing’, which also occurs in anim­als, is a res­ult of a battle of the sexes in which the male sperm’s desire to make the ‘biggest and best’ seed is pit­ted against the female’s need to keep con­trol over her resources so she has enough left to fill a num­ber of seeds.


Whatever – Meg1 is almost cer­tainly respons­ible for gen­er­at­ing what you had for break­fast this morn­ing and as such is a really, really import­ant gene. Excitingly, the Warwick/Oxford research­ers were also able to show that the out­put of Meg1 – like most animal imprin­ted genes – is strictly dosage-dependent – sug­gest­ing that it may be pos­sible to improve seed yield by breed­ing plants with more cop­ies of Meg1.

Meg1 effects on seed growth: maize ear and kernels are seen segregating for normal and Meg1 small seeds (top) while the difference in transfer-cell structure is seen in the lower micrographs. See Costa et al. .

Meg1 effects on seed growth: maize ear and ker­nels are seen segreg­at­ing for nor­mal and Meg1 small seeds (top) while the dif­fer­ence in transfer-cell struc­ture is seen in the lower micro­graphs. See Costa et al. http://​dx​.doi​.org/​1​0​.​1​0​1​6​/​j​.​c​u​b​.​2​0​1​1​.​1​1​.​059 .

The Meg1 work was led by Jose Gutierrez-Marcos from Warwick’s School of Life Science, and Liliana Costa and Hugh Dickinson from Oxford’s Department of Plant Sciences.  As Jose says “these find­ings have sig­ni­fic­ant implic­a­tions for global agri­cul­ture and food secur­ity, as sci­ent­ists now have the molecu­lar know-how to manip­u­late this gene by tra­di­tional plant breed­ing or through other meth­ods in order to improve seed traits, such as increased seed bio­mass yield. To meet the demands of the world’s grow­ing pop­u­la­tion in years to come, sci­ent­ists and breed­ers must work together to safe­guard and increase agri­cul­tural production”.


* Liliana M. Costa, Jing Yuan, Jacques Rouster, Wyatt PaulHugh Dickinson and Jose F. Gutierrez-Marcos,  (2012) Maternal Control of Nutrient Allocation in Plant Seeds by Genomic Imprinting Current Biology.. 22, 160–165 doi:10.1016/j.cub.2011.11.059.


Ann Bot is a gestalt entity who works in the office for the Annals of Botany.