Non-Transgenic Genetic Trait for Deeper Roots in Corn

Increased Drought and Nitrogen Efficiency

At a Glance

Researchers at Colorado State University have discovered a deeper-rooted gene model in maize and developed a maize mutant variant using the natural variation in its genome. This can improve crop yield especially in regions with suboptimal growing conditions, by increasing resource efficiency and drought resistance. This can contribute to more consistent and reliable harvests.


For all crop plants, roots play a critical role in growth. Roots anchor the plants and are the primary site of nutrient and water uptake. Roots are also the main source of Carbon to soil in the form of root tissues and exudates, and thus greatly influence soil organic matter stocks. To perform these functions primary roots extend into the soil producing a network of branching roots of characteristic form, known as its root system architecture. Deeper roots are major targets for the second green revolution due to their potential to improve crop productivity, increase drought tolerance, and decrease Nitrogen inputs. Deeper rooted genotypes of maize will be particularly valuable since this crop is planted on over 92 million acres annually in the US. Elite corn hybrids are also becoming increasingly sensitive to drought and would benefit from deeper roots as well.


Root systems, complex in structure and function, play a pivotal role in modulating growth in response to water and nutrient availability presenting a diverse potential for breeding resilient crops in the second green revolution. However, measuring root architecture in mature field crops has been historically neglected due to inherent challenges. This innovation addresses a known agricultural challenge by optimizing crop root systems for increased yield and resilience, crucial for US maize cultivation.

Mutagenic evaluation, specifically using transposable elements, enables precise marker discovery for this gene function. Notably, the key benefit lies in the development of insertion lines through conventional selection and Mendelian segregation, ensuring non-GMO status. These lines can be immediately field-tested providing a practical, legally compliant avenue for real-world application.

The team was focused on improving nitrogen-use efficiency and drought resilience in maize by screening different genotypes’ root architecture using their previously developed Root Pulling Force Machine. Improved nitrogen use efficiency means that crops can make better use of available nitrogen, reducing the need for excessive fertilizer application. This not only benefits the environment by minimizing nitrogen runoff but also makes the cultivation process more cost-effective for farmers. Corn varieties with increased drought resilience can withstand water stress, providing a buffer against unpredictable climatic conditions. This is particularly valuable in regions prone to water scarcity or irregular rainfall patterns.


  • Non-transgenic trait for deeper root architecture
  • Can be inserted into existing elite corn hybrids.
  • Insertion lines can be used in conventional breeding.


  • Crop yield improvement.
  • Increased resource efficiency, especially nitrogen
  • Increased drought resilience in changing climate
Last Updated: May 2024
stock image of field of corn crop with the sunset in the background

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TRL: 3

IP Status

US Provisional Patent


John McKay
Jack Mullen
Kirsten Hein

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Jessy McGowan