High Oil corn variety nearly ready for commercial development

Written by Jonathan Eisenthal

University of Minnesota scientists, with funding from Minnesota Corn Research & Promotion Council, are developing a high-oil line which should become available later this year for license to agribusinesses interested in developing high oil corn hybrids for the commercial market.

In conjunction with this project, university scientists are developing an optimized system for dry-milling this high oil corn in order to derive both biodiesel from the oil content and ethanol from the starch. A university economist is developing various models to predict methods for producing biodiesel from this corn that would be profitable.

The line, dubbed AHO-1, features a 20 percent oil content, compared to 4-5 percent oil content in typical commercial varieties grown in Minnesota. The germplasm will be ready for release in December. AHO-1 is being developed by Drs. Ron Phillips and Rex Bernardo, a corn geneticist and a corn breeder at the University of Minnesota. Regents Professor Phillips received an original stock of kernels from open-pollinated corn grown in North Korea–a gift from a South Korean agronomist who discovered the special corn when she was involved with development work in North Korea. Phillips began developing an inbred line so that Minnesota producers could use it and obtain consistent results of high oil content. Bernardo continued the work after Phillips retired in 2010. 

AHO-1 features a larger embryo and a smaller endosperm than typical corn varieties produced in the US, which means that it contains more oil and a bit less starch than those typical varieties.

“In the crossing work we’ve done we wanted to capture some of the agronomic qualities of the non high-oil varieties,” said Bernardo. “Anticipated oil content drops to around 12 percent when AHO-1 is crossed with regular corn lines–it seems there will always be a tradeoff between oil and starch. The plant can only produce so much energy. You cannot expect to increase the one aspect without affecting the other.”

The research involved a full investigation into the genetics of this unique high oil germplasm from Korea. They found that many genes control the trait, as compared to BT Corn or RoundUp(TM) Corn varieties, where a single gene offers the desired trait.

“We’ve done some yield trials in four locations in Minnesota and we found that when we crossed the Korean high oil corn with regular US corn lines, that the high-oil varieties have a 30 percent yield drag compared with the best commercial hybrids. However the oil yield is about twice as much,” said Bernardo.

In trials in Saint Paul, Rosemount, Waseca and Lamberton, they produced an average yield of 183 bushels with commercial corn varieties while the high oil hybrid produced 126 bushels per acre. However, the oil yield of 847 pounds per acre is more than double the oil found in three commercial varieties grown in the trials (410 pound per acre).

Prof. Roger Ruan, of the U of M bioproducts and biosystems engineering department, is developing the special milling technique that separates the components and then utilizes a catalyst like hexane to render the oil and starch needed to produce biofuels. Assistant Prof. Doug Tiffany, department of Applied Economics, is studying how to develop a profitable production and marketing scenario for high oil corn.

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