Saturday, May 29, 2010

From Teosinte to Maize to Corn to High-Fructose Corn Syrup in 9,000 Years

For most of the past 100,000 years Homo sapiens relied on gathering fruits, nuts, seeds, tubers and other offerings from nature in order to survive. It was a relatively recent 10,000 years ago that humans began to domesticate and raise animals and plant their own food.

Sean B. Carroll of The New York Times reported in an article on May 25th that the origin of domesticated maize has been determined through advances in DNA research. Corn has of course become an important food globally for humans, livestock and energy. Corn is the third largest food crop in the world behind rice and wheat.

In the past botanists have not found any direct ancestor of modern corn. The biological origin has thus been a bit of a mystery. However through DNA matching it is an unassuming Mexican grass called teosinte that is the Rosetta stone of this puzzle.

Teosinte of the genus Zea is a group of five grasses that grow in Central America and Southern Mexico. Its skinny ears have just a dozen kernels wrapped inside of rock-hard casings, like the tail of an armadillo. It is hard to imagine this plant as the ancestor of corn and in fact in the past it has been classified as closer to rice than to corn.

The DNA evidence taken from teosinte plants throughout its geographical range provides evidence that maize originated in the tropical Central Balsas River Valley in Southern Mexico. It is interesting that the geographical origin of maize is almost a template of the ancient civilizations of Mexico – Olmec, Zapotea, Teotihuacan, Maya, Toltecs and Aztecs. Maize was the mother food of these grand cultures and teosinte is the mother of maize.

It is amazing to me that small groups of people 9,000 years ago were able to select and grow the desirable features of teosinte and evolve it into a high yielding and easily harvested food crop. I thank them for the great American tradition of eating sweet corn with butter and salt on a summer day

And of course today huge industrial farms across our continent grow just a few highly bred varieties of corn for the production of ethanol, feed for cattle and other animals, and for the great crack cocaine food product of the 21st century – High-fructose corn syrup.

Richard Wottrich

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