Advent Calendar of Science Stories 8: The First GMO

This entry doesn't have a fictionalized story both because I'm on vacation, and because I don't think there's a single dramatic turning point in this particular story. It's probably one of the most impressive human accomplishments of the last umpteen thousand years, though, and definitely deserves a place in any rundown of wonders of science. I'm speaking, of course, of corn.

To a modern American, of course, corn (or "maize" if you want to sound European) doesn't seem especially impressive or scientific, but it ranks as a great accomplishment because of where it came from. Which, as far as we can tell, is a bushy plant called teosinte, which really doesn't much remember modern corn at all. They're remarkably similar genetically, though, to the point of being able to produce fertile hybrids.

Unlike a lot of other cereal crops--wheat and rice, say--where you can imagine cavemen stumbling across cultivation of wild varieties, the path between wild teosinte and modern corn is not at all obvious. And it probably took a good while, in human terms, to get close to the modern crop. On an archeological time scale, though, it's pretty quick, and once something close to modern corn was first produced, it spread really rapidly, powering most of the civilizations of pre-Colombian Central and North American. which isn't surprising, as it's a great staple crop: easy to grow, simple to harvest and process, nutritious and versatile. That's why it's in damn near everything produced by the modern food industry, too.

Our other staple crops are also improved over their wild ancestors, but the teosinte to corn transition is probably the most dramatic example of the power of a bit of science applied to early agriculture. Somebody scraping by on difficult-to-work-with teosinte had to deliberately collect the few varieties that were better suited to human consumption, and cultivate them. And over a large number of plant generations, they created something remarkable, by noticing small changes, trying things out, and passing seeds and plants on to others.

So, the next time you're eating chips and salsa, or any of the myriad food products made with corn syrup, spare a thought for the ancient Central American scientists who made all that possible.

(Part of a series promoting Eureka: Discovering Your Inner Scientist, available from Amazon, Barnes and Noble, IndieBound, Powell’s, and anywhere else books are sold.)

(Teosinte/corn image from NSF.)

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And we can all thank teosinte for giving us obesity and diabetes.

I've mentioned maize/corn myself when talking about the history of GMO, and even shared the image below to make the comparison more clear. (Scanned from my positively ancient anthro text that might have been new in the '80s, I'd like to think it's presented as fair-use here.)

To go from a weedy thing not much different from a barley stalk to something not much different from the crazy-big cobs of today... with literally stone age technology... almost makes pyramids seem easy by comparison.

-- Steve.

By Anton P. Nym (not verified) on 08 Dec 2014 #permalink

There's a pretty good argument that the indigenous population of the Americas was way ahead on agriculture, but it wasn't plowed fields so it didn't look like farming to the arriving Europeans.

About a quarter of the eastern woodlands was American Chestnut (until a fungal blight in the first decade of the 20th century); chestnut was a staple food. The Amazon is full of fruit trees that are probable feral orchard trees from pre 1492. Then you get beans and squash, to go with the corn, which is a better staple crop set than the Fertile Crescent grains. The Inca food tool kit was _huge_ and had potatoes (the introduction of potatoes to northern europe stopped recuring famines...) and better grain equivalents and immense variety, still being cataloged.

It's not hard to suppose that the skills necessary to make corn from teosinte were conserved and transmitted pretty generally.

@Graydon: And don't forget peppers. The spicy food we associate with much of Asia (particularly India, Thailand, and inland China) has only been that way for about 300 years. The hot peppers which those cuisines use extensively are all native to the Americas; Dutch traders brought them to Asia around 1700.

By Eric Lund (not verified) on 09 Dec 2014 #permalink

I wouldn't talk down fertile crescent tool-kit: emmer and einkorn wheat, barley, chickpea, lentil, pea, and I might add dates and figs, and a few less important things. Then there are the animals, one of which can plow, transport and do other serious work.
I'm hardly saying corn alteration is unimpressive, and it's interesting that at thanksgiving I can have a pretty complete menu with just new world species (but from 2 different regions), though when I do that it is lost on the eaters unless pointed out.