Carman has spent the past 25 years studying a phenomenon known as "apomixis" - the naturally occurring ability of some plant species to asexually reproduce by seeds - in essence, allowing a plant to "produce a genetic clone of itself," he says.
The USU plant geneticist believes he has discovered how to induce low levels of apomixis in various food crops, thereby increasing their yields.
He says his discovery will alleviate the labor-intensive process of fertilizing hybrid seeds for food production - potentially boosting crop yields by up to 35 percent.
In rice alone, Carman says, this is enough added yield to feed an additional billion people. And this method could lower the $450 million that U.S. producers now spend for hybrid corn seed to $100 million, he predicts.
USU has been awarded a patent for this "clonal-seed reproduction" method - and Carman has access to a $2 million grant to develop his discovery.
Apomixis is an "uncommon trait, even though it occurs in common plants" such as dandelions and Kentucky blue grass, Carman says. "It causes the plant to produce a genetic clone of itself."
Normal hybrid seeds are good for only one generation of plants.
"It [apomixis expression] perpetuates itself from one seed generation to the next," he said. "The progeny seeds are going to be high-yielding plants just like the mother."
USU licensed the technology to Gemini Life Sciences Inc., of Sugar City, Idaho. That company recently was awarded a $2 million development grant from the Advanced Technology Program of the National Institute of Standards and Technology.
Gemini awarded shares of its stock to Utah State University as part of the licensing agreement, according to Carole Golden, a manger in the USU Technology Commercialization Office. USU also will earn royalties on the revenue generated by Carman's discovery and receive money from Gemini to support additional research.
Gemini CEO Ross Farmer says his primary interest is to clone plants that create food, feed and fiber. Carman is working with Gemini to improve the technology by focusing on sorghum, a grain and forage plant primarily used in the United States as cattle feed.
"We've achieved scientific proof of concept. We expect to have commercial proof in about three years. Then we'll start working on corn, wheat and rice," Farmer says. "This technology will allow agriculture to immortalize hybrid vigor for substantial increased yields in wheat and rice. Once it manifests itself in all grain crops, it will have an impact of more than $10 billion per year."
Farmer predicts that apomixis expression could someday make a huge impact in fuel and energy production. Biofuels, which are not commercially feasible right now, could be exploited as the technology improves, he says.
"There's a lot of work going into ethanol research, trying to get the United States to be more energy independent," Farmer says. "Apomixis feeds right into that, with the increased production that it provides for."