After a series of related findings, a University of Wisconsin scientific research team has discovered a defining element in the genetic development of domesticated corn.
The finding involves developments from 10,000 years ago when, with the aid of Mexican farmers, corn diverged from teosinte, a wild Mexican grass that was bushy and produced few kernels, according to a UW statement.
Although this has been known for some time, the exact mechanism by which this happened hadn’t been known until the research teams’ finding.
The team found that about 23,000 years ago a small “jumping gene” named Hopscotch jumped into the gene in teosinte which causes bushiness and less productivity, and converted it to no longer express these traits, the statement said.
This evolutionary mechanism has given rise to modern domesticated corn.
John Doebley, UW plant geneticist and a corn evolution expert who led the research team, said in addition to causing the crop to express less bushiness and have less branches, the jumping gene increased the gene’s expression to produce more and larger kernels.
In a statement, he said Mexican farmers began to see the more productive crop, and weeded out the teosinte.
Doebley said the project has been underway for many years. The question of what changed teosinte into corn has been a primary focus at his lab, and he and his team discovered the key gene about 10 years ago and have now pinpointed its exact role in corn’s evolution.
“You answer one question and that leads to a new one,” Doebley said. “It’s something we’ve worked on for a long time, and we’re making new discoveries all the time.”
Doebley said a key importance to the finding is its uniqueness in terms of understanding evolution.
He said not much in the way of specifics is known in regards to evolution, so his lab’s discovery is not common.
“All the organisms around us evolved to be different, and we don’t have as detailed an understanding of that as you might think. [Our discovery] is significant because we’ve managed to track down a case where we can say very precisely what happened,” he said.
He also said the finding is key as it could lead to future developments.
Once society has a greater understanding of how domestication worked 10,000 years ago, Doebley said the information could be used to improve our domesticated crop today.
Doebley also noted certain companies that are interested in such projects would likely use the findings to their advantage by using it as a jumping point.
“I know for a fact that breeding companies take an interest in the work we do,” he said. “Breeding companies may use our jumping genes to make other genes turn on a faster level.”
Doebley said what is important to note is the fact that the project was carried out mainly by UW graduate students, most importantly Tony Studer, who is a former UW graduate student and now does postgraduate work at Cornell University.
Doebley said the National Science Foundation as well as the United States Department of Agriculture mainly funded the research.