On a drive through the Corn Belt, where most people see endless uniform copies of the same plant, Candice Hirsch sees fields of data.
“I love doing research,” she says. “I love walking fields and looking at corn plants and seeing diversity, and trying to understand what makes that happen. I really enjoy the discovery and being able to ask questions to understand the world around me—where diversity comes from and how the environment can impact that diversity.”
The assistant professor originally planned to be a medical doctor, but Hirsch’s college dean urged her to get a job in a plant genetics lab. She worked on a project cloning the sugar enhancer gene in sweet corn, and she was hooked.
Hirsch was hired by the Department Agronomy and Plant Genetics to do “translational genomics in maize,” which she admits can mean something different to any given person. For her team, it means generating a lot of big data including next-generation sequencing data and phenotypic data, then comparing and contrasting sequences to understand how the genome varies between individuals and the relationship with observed phenotypic differences.
While that sounds complicated, Hirsch says understanding the genetics of different traits helps answer basic biological questions about corn that can be applied to improve corn as a crop plant.
“Corn is a really great system to study because it has really extensive genome content variation,” she says. “More than many plant species, even more than humans. We’re asking questions about how that variation comes to exist naturally and the impact on phenotypic variation.”
She’ll use the answers she finds to help guide breeders and genomic engineers to introduce corn variations using the same mechanisms that nature does: understanding how individual plants react to the environment can lead to species with higher realized yield or better disease resistance.
This work is part of a collaboration with PepsiCo to develop a toolbox of knowledge for breeders of food-grade corn. “Because the food-grade corn market is relatively small, there has not been as much investment in improving the quality of varieties released for this market,” Hirsch says. “There is real potential there in looking at the flavor profiles of corn, so that we could potentially find genes that make chips taste good without a lot of additives and surface-level flavoring added.”
When she’s not in the field or buried in data, Hirsch teaches a class where her students learn to ask questions and get their hands dirty with big data—the only way to understand genomics, she says. And this August she’ll take a class to the International Maize and Wheat Improvement Center in Mexico to give her students an international perspective on breeding and producing food for the developing world.
“I just love what I do,” Hirsch says. “Corn is a model species for the grasses as a whole, and is a great system for asking genetic questions. It’s also really important in the food system. It’s one of the most important crop plants worldwide, and I like that I can have a real impact with it. I get to have my corn and eat it too.”