Growing Gold

Wenwei Xu standing in his corn breeding lab. Wenwei Xu is a leading plant scientist for Texas A&M AgriLife Extension where he has worked for over 20 years.

Wenwei Xu’s face lit up with joy as he held a sample of one of his many ground-breaking projects, Hi-A corn. This year, he and his colleagues will handle over 10,000 different corn materials in order to give superior genetics to corn farmers across the South Plains.

Xu, who has a doctorate in genetics, has a joint appointment as a professor in plant genetics at Texas Tech University and as a leading corn scientist at Texas A&M AgriLife Research. He is currently working on multiple projects that will transform the corn industry. His current projects are directed toward improving drought-tolerance, reducing infestation, and creating high-quality crops.

“We are always developing new corn lines and hybrids that did not exist before,” Xu said.

Xu grew up on a farm in China where his family raised corn, wheat and sugar beets. He said he came to the United States in 1987 as a visiting scientist at the University of Missouri-Columbia where he eventually pursued his Ph.D. After graduation, Xu moved to Lubbock, Texas, in 1993 to work as a postdoctoral researcher at Texas Tech before joining Texas A&M AgriLife Research in 1998.

“This land is a challenge, but it also offers opportunities.”

Wenwei Xu, Ph.D.

Xu said developing a new variety of corn is like developing two different crops because geneticists must develop an inbred line then create hybrids. He said it takes a minimum of 10 seasons to develop a new variety, but he has found a way to expedite the process. Each year, he and his coworkers will hand-pollinate over 10,000 ears then go to Puerto Rico for two weeks with samples, so they can evaluate two seasons in one year.

One of Xu's corn fields with coverings on corn plants for hand pollination.
Xu and his colleagues will hand pollinate over 10,000 ears of corn in one year. Photo Credit: Wenwei Xu

“Corn breeding is different from other crops like cotton and wheat,” Xu said. “It takes an additional three to five years to develop a corn variety.”

Xu said the difficulty with plant breeding is different genetics do better in separate places. A corn species that thrives in Minnesota will not do well in Lubbock because the land has different limiting factors.

“That’s the difference between agriculture genetics and the cell phone,” Xu said. “The best cell phone in Lubbock is also the best cell phone in California, but with agriculture, the best variety in Lubbock may not even be the best variety for Bushland, so we have to find the best variety suitable for a certain environment.”

He said in Lubbock, the biggest limiting factor for corn production is water. There are three ways to address water limitations: improving drought-tolerance of crops, producing the same amount of crop with limited water, and producing a higher quality crop which brings more money per bushel. Two of his current projects are focused on developing a higher quality crop, so farmers can plant less and still meet their bottom-line.

“This land is a challenge,” Xu said, “but it also offers opportunities.”

Xu said one of his current projects does not have a name yet, but he refers to it as specialty corn. It comes in a variety of unique colors including red, maroon and black. Xu said the compounds in this corn are different from yellow or white corn. They have more antioxidants and contain anthocyanins, making the corn’s contents like a blackberry. The darker they are, the more antioxidants and anthocyanins they have.

“A strawberry or blackberry will rot,” Xu said, “but these will not. They are easy to store and transport.”

Red and black specialty corn laying on a table with other corn varieties.
“Specialty corn” contains important antioxidants and anthocyanins. Its colors include red, maroon, and black.

According to data from a peer reviewed article published by Food and Nutrition Research, anthocyanins are a type of antioxidant used commonly as a natural red and blue food dye. They offer many health benefits including enhanced antimicrobial activity, improved visual and cognitive health, and resistance to non-communicable diseases.

The project Xu said he is most excited about is his development of Hi-A corn. He said this corn is like specialty corn; however, the antioxidants and anthocyanins are present in the cob instead of the kernel.

Xu said a common practice in the corn industry is to harvest the kernels then discard the cob as waste, left to rot in the field. The purpose of Hi-A corn is to add extra antioxidants and anthocyanins to the cob so it can be used as a high-quality livestock feed. He said he is working on a research study to determine how the Hi-A corn cob does as a feed supplement.

“We have a cob that can produce lots of anthocyanin,” Xu said, “and potentially we can use the corn cob as a valuable animal feed so that trash becomes treasure.”

Thomas Marek is an engineer for Texas A&M AgriLife Research who works in irrigation water conservation and management. He is stationed out of Amarillo and has worked with Xu for over 20 years in the field. He said Xu creates the genetics, and he properly cares for the crop.

“You can develop the best genetics in the world and put them in a bag,” Marek said, “but you can’t see the full potential of a crop without proper management.”

Marek said he enjoys the partnership he has developed with Xu over the years and has respect for his research.

“Wenwei came over here looking for an opportunity,” Marek said. “He is well-respected across the state and country. He has saved producers not only in this area, but across the country.”