When in place plants have no choice but to adapt to their environments, responding to stresses like drought or pests by changing how they grow. On a broader scale crop breeders need to be able to develop new varieties that are adapted to a new location or changing growing conditions in the same area.

Both types of adaptation rely on a pool of possibilities, the combinations from which one can choose. For the individual plant those possibilities depend on the genome it was born with. For breeders that pool of possibilities is the whole range of genomes of cultivated crops, which they can blend together to create new varieties.

The University of Wisconsin-Madison’s College of Agricultural and Life Sciences researchers wanted to know whether the past 100 years of selecting for corn that is acclimated to particular locations has changed its ability to adapt to new or stressful environments. By measuring populations of corn plants sown across North America they could test how the corn genomes responded to different growing conditions. What they found is that artificial selection by crop breeders has constricted the pool of possibilities for North American corn varieties.

In a recent issue of “Nature Communications,” Natalia de Leon, agronomy professor, Joe Gage, her student, and colleagues at several institutions concluded that the existing corn varieties are strong and stable, but they are less flexible in their ability to respond to various stresses. At the same time, those corn populations might have a reduced ability to contribute to breeding programs that seek to create new varieties adapted to novel environments.

“Over the last 100 years people have definitely improved cultivars,” de Leon said, the senior author of the report. “What we were trying to do in this study is to measure whether by doing that we have also limited the ability of the genotypes to respond to environments when they change.”

By intensively breeding for high yield — in Wisconsin for example — those plants might lose the flexibility to respond to environments that are different from Wisconsin growing conditions. To test this idea de Leon and her colleagues at 12 agricultural universities in the United States and Canada devised a large field trial with more than 850 unique corn varieties growing in 21 locations across North America. There were more than 12,000 total field plots where researchers measured traits like yield and plant height while recording weather conditions.

The massive experiment is possible only because of a collaboration called “Genomes to Fields,” which is led by de Leon, Shawn Kaeppler, UW–Madison agronomy professor, and others. The project stretches across 20 states and parts of Canada. This provides precisely the range of various field conditions required to tease apart the different contributions of the genomes and of the environments to the final traits of the corn.

De Leon and her collaborators found that the regions of the corn genome that have undergone a high degree of selection — for example gene regions that contribute to high yield in a particular location — were associated with a reduced capacity of corn to respond to variable environments compared to genomic regions that weren’t directly acted on by breeders. The upshot is that the modern corn varieties are productive in the environments they are grown in, but they might have a harder time handling changes in those environments.

“The data seem to point to the idea that by selecting genotypes that are better suited to be more productive, we are eroding variability that might be important as we move into a world where climate might be more erratic and where we might need to move cultivars into places where they haven’t been grown before,” de Leon said.

Yet this loss of flexibility is an inherent trade-off for highly productive cultivars of corn, she said.

“When you try to adapt cultivars to many different environments you end up with plants that are not great anywhere,” de Leon said. “The cost of maintaining this plasticity is to the detriment of maximum productivity.”

“So we have to strike the right balance in the long term,” she said.

The preceding content is published with permission from the editor of “grow” Wisconsin’s Magazine for the Life Sciences published by the University of Wisconsin-Madison College of Agricultural and Life Sciences.

Eric Hamilton is a science writer at the University of Wisconsin–Madison, where he covers agriculture and botany among other subjects. A former plant scientist, he is interested in all aspects of plants and agriculture and is particularly fascinated by corn.