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Discovering corn's hybrid origin unlocks crop improvement
USAgNet - 12/04/2023

Maize, known as corn in the U.S., a cornerstone of global agriculture, owes its widespread success to a unique mixed origin. This staple grain, essential in human and animal diets and deeply rooted in indigenous cultures of the Americas, emerges as a hybrid from central Mexico, overturning a century-long debate.

For decades, scientists believed maize, evolved solely from a wild grass, teosinte, in southwest Mexico's lowlands. However, this new study, led by Jeffrey Ross-Ibarra from the University of California, Davis, unveils a surprising twist. Analysis of over a thousand maize and wild relative genomes indicates about 20% of modern maize's genetic makeup comes from a highland teosinte variant.

This hybridization, occurring around 5000 years ago, significantly after maize's initial domestication 9,000 to 10,000 years ago, marked the turning point for maize's popularity and cultivation spread across the Americas. Archaeological evidence aligns with this timeline, highlighting maize's growing prominence.

The researchers identified genes influencing cob size and flowering time, potentially explaining maize's adaptability and increased yield potential. This hybrid vigor, introducing robustness and fewer harmful mutations, may have been recognized and utilized by indigenous farmers, who observed stronger crops when wild maize grew nearby.

Supported by a $1.6 million National Science Foundation grant, Ross-Ibarra's team, along with other experts, plans to delve deeper into the co-evolution of humans and maize. Integrating human genetics, maize genetics, and archaeological data, they aim to unravel further mysteries of this pivotal crop's journey alongside humans.

This research not only enlightens maize's past but also opens new avenues for its future enhancements, proving crucial for one of the world's most vital crops.

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