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The First Genetically Engineered Plant

Even today in ceremonies in Central America you can see the importance of corn as part of the Central American culture. Now, as documented by genetic studies, of Professors Doebley and Walter Galinat, the corn that Columbus received was not a wild plant the Native Americans found just growing around. The corn that Columbus received was created by the Native Americans some 8,000 years ago by domestication of a wild plant called teosinte. They used genetic engineering in a quite remarkable way to produce a more productive variety. In this way, the 500th anniversary of Columbus is also a celebration of the scientific genius of the Native Americans.

Pictured to the right is teosinte, which still exists. It looks like a grass, which it is, and next to it is modern corn. Here's the cob; you'll notice there are no cobs on teosinte -- actually they appear as little spikelets. These actually are quite closely related but this would be thought of by most people as a weed.

Modern corn, as you see represented at the bottom of this photograph, was derived from teosinte. You'll notice that every place along the spike of that teosinte cob (shown on the top of the image) only one kernel comes off. Those kernels are tiny and each one has a husk so you have to shell it. Furthermore, that cob shatters to disperse the seeds so it was a real pain to go around collecting the seeds. You couldn't just pick the cob without dispersing all of the seeds. Now, the important observation that was made was that two mutants occurred. The Native Americans had the good sense to cross them to produce the corn cob pictured at the bottom.

Now, for this discussion we're going to use the scientific terminology, mutant, rather than "muTANT" as they do in the science fiction films. They always say, "Here comes the muTANT." Scientists have to do a double take.... "Oh yes, they mean mutant".

So, why did the Native Americans cross these "mutant" varieties of teosinte?

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