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Of Maize and Mutants

A visit with Karen Cone, Professor of Biological Sciences

By LuAnne Roth
Published: - Topics: genetics plant genetics maize epigenetics tassel

In Search of Chromatin: Cone’s Current Research

Topics: genes DNA

Cone’s current research seeks to understand the function of a group of genes called chromatin: “Chromatin is the complex of DNA and protein, which allows us as humans–or plants like corn–to pack a lot of DNA into the tiny nucleus of a cell.” The DNA duplex for both corn plants and humans is huge. As she explains, “we have about the same size genome, about three billion base pairs, but ours is really long. We pack about six feet of DNA in every cell,” each of which is only five microns across. That’s a heck of a lot of DNA!” How does all that DNA fit in there? “We’re smart,” suggests Cone, adding that “corn and humans do it the same way,” as does every organism with a nucleus. Therefore, her research on DNA packaging is applicable to every organism, because “from yeast, to mice, to humans, to plants—we all wrap up our DNA basically the same way.” It amounts to a sort of microscopic compressor system, which Cone describes as “amazing.” If researchers can better understand how this chromatin packaging occurs, they might eventually be able to control the process to their advantage.