Researchers from Washington University in St. Louis have begun to unlock the genetic secrets of corn, and have completed a working draft of the corn genome, which will be unveiled for the first time on February 28 at the 50th Annual Maize Genetics Conference in Washington, D.C. Richard K. Wilson, director of Washington University's Genome Sequencing Center and the project leader, said that the first draft of the genome sequence is exciting "because it's the first comprehensive glimpse at the blueprint for the corn plant". "Scientists now will be able to accurately and efficiently probe the corn genome to find ways to improve breeding and subsequently increase crop yields and resistance to drought and disease." The $29.5 million project was initiated in 2005 and is funded by the National Science Foundation (NSF), the US Department of Agriculture and the US Department of Energy - since corn is the most widely used crop for biofuels. "Corn is one of the most economically important crops for our nation," said NSF director Arden L. Bement Jr. "Completing this draft sequence of the corn genome constitutes a significant scientific advance and will foster growth of the agricultural community and the economy as a whole." The draft covers about 95 per cent of the corn genome, and scientists will spend the remaining year of the grant refining and finalizing the sequence. "Although it's still missing a few bits, the draft genome sequence is empowering," Wilson said. "Virtually all the information is there, and while we may make some small modifications to the genetic sequence, we don't expect major changes." The group sequenced a variety of corn known as B73, developed at Iowa State decades ago. It is noted for its high grain yields and has been used extensively in both commercial corn breeding and in research laboratories. The genome will be a key tool for researchers working to improve varieties of corn and other cereal crops, including rice, wheat and barley. "There's a lot of great research on the horizon," said plant biologist Ralph S. Quatrano, chair of Washington University's Department of Biology. "The genome will help unravel the basic biology of corn. That information can be used to look for genes that make corn more nutritious." Corn is only the second crop after rice to have its genome sequenced, and scientists will now be able to look for genetic similarities and differences between the crops, Quatrano added. Another use for the corn genome would be to help scientists enhance drought resistance in corn and other cereal crops, which would greatly benefit regions with less favourable conditions for agriculture. Other improvements aim at increasing yield and nutritional value and optimising the properties crucial for grain products such as flour, noodles and pasta. Unravelling the corn genome will also have enormous implications for other cereal crops besides corn, including wheat, sorghum and millet. Corn is one of the most important economic crops, and, together with rice, accounts for 70 percent of worldwide food production. The production of corn-based products with enhanced nutritional value that are safer and less allergenic should directly benefit consumers - although it remains to be seen whether concerns in some parts of the world, notably Europe, about tinkering with the genetics of the food that we eat can be successfully overcome.