by Mandy Waters

In honor of the Festival del Maiz this week at the market members from Plant Biological Sciences, Bioinformatics and Computational Biology, and the Chemistry department had a full day dedicated to corn! We had many different types of corn and cobs for people to view. These examples showcase how different corn can look and why certain types of corn are better for popping, eating, or making biofuels. Most of the corn you see in fields isn’t sweet corn. It is field corn, which is starchy instead of sweet. We even had an example of corn that is perennial (doesn’t need to planted every year).

Some members of the Market Science team do research on corn at the University of Minnesota and were able to bring in corn plants from their field. We had examples of inbred lines (varieties that have been self-crossed for many generations) and hybrid lines (offspring of a cross between two inbred lines). Hybrid corn is almost twice as tall as the parents, has larger cobs with more seeds, and is better able to handle harsh environments. Most of the commercial lines grown for food and feed for animals are hybrids because of the listed benefits.

We also brought some examples of corn that have a mutation in the genome. Some of the mutants we brought to the market were dwarf (only 2 feet tall at maturity), purple corn plants, a shredding leaf mutant where the leaves are ripped apart like they have been put through a paper shredder, and a lazy mutant that grows along the ground instead of upright. Scientists use these mutants to figure out what gene is responsible for the physical change. Most of these mutants only have a single base change that causes their change in appearance! Isn’t that crazy?

The chemistry department also brought many plastic products that are made from corn sugars. Some of the products included cups, silverware, blankets, socks, diapers, and hotel key cards. Even as a corn researcher I was very surprised at all of the products that were made from corn. This was a great way to showcase how scientists from different fields can use the same plant to answer different questions or needs as well as current research being done at the University.

Finally, we had some corn smut and immature ears for people to look at under the microscopes. Corn smut is a fungus that grows on the stalk, ear, or tassel of corn. Depending on where the smut is located on a plant we can see a large decrease in yield because of the infection. On the other hand smut is also harvested and used in some traditional Mexican dishes. Immature ears will develop into the cob and kernels once the ear has been pollinated. We were able see the places each potential kernel could develop is already defined and each of the silks (hair looking things) are attached to each egg (potential kernel). So, however many kernels an ear has that is equal to the number of silks. Silks are very important!

We had a great time talking about corn and hope you did too!

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