A corn genome map is not a route to the best-looking cornfield in the county. It's a path to higher yields and prices for corn growers.

Developing corn genome maps is one part of genomics, the latest buzzword in ag research. Genomics is the science of identifying, at the cellular level, what makes a plant work in order to improve its characteristics.

"Genomics is a science that lets us look at a plant gene by gene," explains Lisa Lorenzen, a genomicist with Pioneer Hi-Bred International. "Genomics is not a new science, but it's new terminology that puts an umbrella over several scientific components that researchers have been studying for a long time."

Those components include analyzing DNA sequences, expression patterns and gene maps to understand how they relate to each other to produce plant characteristics, says Lorenzen.

Corn contains about 100,000 genes. Each gene is composed of sections of DNA in which the chemical bases are arranged in a specific order or sequence. DNA provides the instructions for a leaf to be a leaf, or a plant to resist a particular disease.

Genomics research should enable scientists to identify genes that contribute to agronomic traits such as pest resistance, drought tolerance and root strength, as well as grain traits such as carbohydrate, protein and oil content.

"We hope to use information from our genome project to improve seed products," says Lorenzen. "For example, our genomics research might help to alter the amino acid content of soybean varieties or the oil content of corn hybrids."

As companies are investing millions of dollars in genome research, it's gaining importance in the public sector, too.

Last fall, President Clinton signed the VA-HUD bill that included $40 million for the Plant Genome Research Initiative. That funding enables the National Science Foundation to present grants to scientists working on the genetics of corn and other major crops.

The additional federal funding will have a big impact on the corn industry, National Corn Growers Association (NCGA) officials report.

"This research will lay the foundation for the 21st century and will go down in history as the most significant advancement in agricultural research," according to Ryland Utlaut, NCGA president.

"Mapping the corn genome is going to make corn hybrid development seem like a bump in the highway," claims Doug Foss, immediate past chairman of NCGA's research committee. "We have in our hands the potential to fine-tune the corn crop so that it's better for farmers, industry and consumers."