Image of Stalk Corn LodgingConsortium led by UK horticulture professor Seth DeBolt
Stalk lodging, when a stem snaps prior to harvest, is a serious problem in most grain crops, resulting in annual yield losses of approximately 20%. That is a significant number when faced with feeding a rapidly growing global population. An interdisciplinary research consortium (KIC) from the University of Kentucky, the University of Idaho, and Clemson University, led by UK horticulture professor Seth DeBolt, is examining ways to overcome this major barrier to improving grain yield.

The team is unusual in that it not only consists of plant scientists but also engineers and mathematicians. With their diverse skill sets, the researchers are taking a unique approach to studying stalk lodging in corn and sorghum. Funded by a four-year, $6 million grant from the National Science Foundation, the team combines mathematical modeling with innovative technology to examine the microstructure of large populations of plants. Their goal: to breed stronger plants.

“We’re using portable biomechanical devices developed by Daniel Robertson at the University of Idaho to determine the lodging resistance of multiple corn and sorghum varieties, and then, using engineering techniques, mathematics, and statistics, we should be able to predict why particular varieties are stronger or weaker,” DeBolt said. “We hope to determine both genetic and environmental factors that influence stalk strength.”

DeBolt is an expert on cell walls, which are the key structures in biomechanics. His lab is studying how plant carbohydrates create cell wall structure and strength.

“Our goal with this project is to use the combination of engineering and biology to tackle problems that can help humanity,” he said. “This could be just the beginning. There are a lot of other complex traits associated with yield and resource allocation within the plant that have not yet been touched because of their complexity.”

-- Carol Lea Spence

Field of Corn demonstrating corn stalking