recently. Why this odd gap in our knowledge? Well, it turns out that corn is shockingly different –in form, or morphology – from its closest wild relative, which is a grass called teosinte, still nativeto southwestern Mexico. In fact, corn and teosinte are so different in appearance that biologistsinitially considered teosinte to be more closely related to rice than to corn, and even when evidence began to suggest a genetic and evolutionary relationship, the idea was hard to accept. As JohnDoebley, University of Wisconsin geneticist and expert on corn genetics and evolution, puts it: “Thestunning morphological differences between the ears of maize and teosinte seemed to exclude thepossibility that teosinte could be the progenitor of maize.” (From “The genetics of maize evolution,”
Annual Review of Genetics
38:37-59, 2004.)But it is now clear that teosinte (Balsas teosinte, to be specific) is the direct ancestor of corn. Inaddition to archaeological evidence, consider:
The chromosomes of corn and teosinte are nearly indistinguishable at very fine levels of structural detail.
Analysis using microsatellite DNA (repetitive DNA elements found in most genomes)identified teosinte as the immediate ancestor of corn, and indicated that the divergenceoccurred 9000 years ago, in agreement with archaeological findings.
Most importantly, a cross between corn and teosinte yields healthy, fertile offspring. So,amazingly, despite being so different in appearance that biologists initially considered themunrelated, corn and teosinte are clearly members of the same
.The basic idea, then, is that corn is a domesticated form of teosinte, exhibiting a strikingly distinctform as a result of selection by human farmers. And that means that we have a perfect opportunity to examine the genetic and developmental changes that underlie these “stunning morphologicaldifferences.” We can do the experiment.First, have a look at an example of one of the evolutionary changes in teosinte under humanselection.The thing on the far left is a teosinte“ear,” the far right is our friend corn,and the middle is what you get in ahybrid between the two. Photo by JohnDoebley; image from Doebley lab website.Used by permission.