Doing maize genetics, according to one geneticist, is “really cool.” It is exactly this kind of enthusiasm that fuels Karen Cone, Professor of Biological Sciences at MU, who specializes in plant genetics. Asked to summarize what researchers in her field actually do, Cone laughs and responds, “Geneticists make mutants…a geneticist learns about the way something works in real life by screwing it up, trying to figure out what’s wrong with the mutant, and then inferring what is normal when the mutant isn’t there.” The mutants that Cone makes involve corn and purple pigmentation.
One of Cone’s earlier research projects on corn genetics is the Maize Mapping Project. Funded by the National Science Foundation as part of the Plant Genome Research Program, the project involved a collaboration of investigators at MU, the University of Arizona, and the University of Georgia. Of the four-year project that was completed in 2002, Cone recounts: “Our goal was to make a map of the maize genome.” Using molecular methods and a genetic population tailored specifically for the project, Cone’s research team set about placing DNA “landmarks” onto the chromosomes. “When we finally finished the map,” she says, “there were over 10,000 landmarks on it!”