Maize Anatomy and the Anatomy of a Maze

Commonly known as corn throughout much of North America, maize is a distinctive emblem of the harvest season. It is one of the most economically important crops in the world (the third most important cereal after rice and wheat) and has scads of uses from food to feed to fuel. The story of its domestication serves as a symbol of human ingenuity, and its plasticity in both form and utility is a remarkable example of why plants are so incredible.

The genus Zea is in the grass family (Poaceae) and consists of five species: Z. diploperennis, Z. perennis, Z. luxurians, Z. nicaraguensis, and Z. mays. Maize is the common name of Zea mays subsp. mays, which is one of four Z. mays subspecies and the only domesticated taxon in the genus. All other taxa are commonly and collectively referred to as teosintes.

The domestication of maize, apart from being an impressive feat, has long been a topic of research and a challenging story to tease apart. The current understanding is that maize was first domesticated around 9000 years ago in the Balsas River valley in southern Mexico, the main progenitor being Zea mays subsp. parviglumis. It is astonishing how drastically different in appearance teosintes are from modern day maize, but it also explains why determining the crop wild relative of maize was so difficult.

Teosinte, teosinte-maize hybrid, and maize - photo credit: wikimedia commons

Teosinte, teosinte-maize hybrid, and maize – photo credit: wikimedia commons

Teosintes and maize both have tall central stalks; however, teosintes generally have multiple lateral branches which give them a more shrubby appearance. In teosinte, each of the lateral branches and the central stalk terminate in a cluster of male flowers; female flowers are produced at the nodes along the lateral branches. In maize, male flowers are borne at the top of the central stalk, and lateral branches are replaced by short stems that terminate in female flowers. This is where the ears develop.

Ears – or clusters of fruits – are blatantly different between teosintes and maize. To start with, teosinte produces a mere 5 to 12 fruits along a short, narrow cob (flower stalk). The fruits are angular and surrounded in a hard casing. Maize cobs are considerably larger both in length and girth and are covered in as many as 500 or more fruits (or kernels), which are generally more rounded and have a softer casing. They also remain on the cob when they are ripe, compared to teosinte ears, which shatter.

Evolutionary biologist, Sean B. Carroll, writes in a New York Times article about the amazing task of “transform[ing] a grass with many inconvenient, unwanted features into a high-yielding, easily harvested food crop.” These “early cultivators had to notice among their stands of plants variants in which the nutritious kernels were at least partially exposed, or whose ears held together better, or that had more rows of kernels, and they had to selectively breed them.” Carroll explains that this “initial domestication process which produced the basic maize form” would have taken several hundred to a few thousand years. The maize that we know and love today is a much different plant than its ancestors, and it is still undergoing regular selection for traits that we find desirable.

Female inflorescence (or "ear") of Zea mays subsp. mays - photo credit: wikimedia commons

Female inflorescence (or “ear”) of Zea mays subsp. mays – photo credit: wikimedia commons

To better understand and appreciate this process, it helps to have a basic grasp of maize anatomy. Maize is an impressive grass in that it regularly reaches from 6 to 10 feet tall and sometimes much taller. It is shallow rooted, but is held up by prop or brace roots – adventitious roots that emerge near the base of the main stalk. The stalk is divided into sections called internodes, and at each node a leaf forms. Leaf sheaths wrap around the entirety of the stalk, and leaf blades are long, broad, and alternately arranged. Each leaf has a prominent midrib. The stalk terminates in a many-branched inflorescence called a tassel.

Maize Anatomy 101 - image credit: Canadian Goverment

Maize Anatomy 101 – image credit: Canadian Government

Maize is monoecious, which means that it has separate male and female flowers that occur on the same plant. The tassel is where the male flowers are located. A series of spikelets occur along both the central branch and the lateral branches of the tassel. A spikelet consists of a pair of bracts called glumes, upper and lower lemmas and paleas (which are also bracts), and two simple florets composed of prominent stamens. The tassel produces and sheds tens of thousands of pollen grains which are dispersed by wind and gravity to the female inflorescences below and to neighboring plants.

Female inflorescences (ears) occur at the top of short stems that originate from leaf axils in the midsection of the stalk. Leaves that develop along this reduced stem wrap around the ears forming the husk. Spikelets form in rows along the flower stalk (cob) within the husk. The florets of these spikelets produce long styles that extend beyond the top of the husk. This cluster of styles is known as the silk. When pollen grains land on silk stigmas, pollen tubes grow down the entire length of the silks to reach the embryo sac. Successful fertilization produces a kernel.

The kernel – or fruit – is known botanically as a caryopsis, which is the standard fruit type of the grass family. Because the fruit wall and seed are fused together so tightly, maize kernels are commonly referred to as seeds. The entire plant can be used to produce feed for animals, but it is the kernel that is generally consumed (in innumerable ways) by humans.

There is so much more to be said about maize. It’s a lot to take in. Rather than delve too much further at this point, let’s explore one of the other ways that maize is used by humans to create something that has become another feature of the fall season – the corn maze.

Entering the corn maze at The Farmstead in Meridian, Idaho

Exploring the corn maze at The Farmstead in Meridian, Idaho





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Developing Perennial Grain Crops from the Ground Up

This is the fourteenth in a series of posts reviewing the 17 articles found in the October 2014 Special Issue of American Journal of Botany, Speaking of Food: Connecting Basic and Applied Science.

Useful Insights from Evolutionary Biology for Developing Perennial Grain Crops by Lee R. DeHaan and David L. Van Tassel

The environmental impacts of modern agriculture are diverse and extensive. Our growing population needs to be fed; however, practices that have long-term negative effects on soil, water, and air quality are unsustainable. It is imperative that we find better alternatives. Developing perennial grain crops is one way that plant breeders are working to address this issue.

Moving from annual to perennial grain crops could potentially “increase water quality, reduce soil erosion, increase soil carbon, and improve habitat for wildlife.” It may also help “address the looming challenges of land degradation, food security, energy supply, and climate change.” Sounds like a major win if we can do it, right? And maybe we will, but first we must domesticate perennial grain varieties that perform on a similar level with annual ones. Most plant breeding today involves “improvement of previously domesticated species;” however, new perennial grain crops must be developed “de novo” (i.e. from wild species) in a matter of “decades rather than centuries to millennia.”

The roots of perennial grasses are considerably more extensive than annual grasses. (photo taken from an article about perennial grain crops at

The roots of perennial grasses are considerably more extensive than annual grasses, which helps reduce erosion and limits the need for fertilizer applications. (photo taken from an article about perennial grain crops at

Little has been published concerning “strategies for the wholesale remodeling of plants,” and so the authors reviewed findings in other fields, such as evolutionary biology and population genetics, in order to devise strategies for developing perennial grain crops. In this article, the authors summarize the published research they reviewed and describe how it relates to breeding perennial grains. It is a dense and lengthy article, so rather than offering a thorough review, I will briefly describe some of the main areas explored by the authors and then summarize their conclusions.

  • Trade-offs – This occurs when “resources allocated to one trait are unavailable for other traits.” Can perennial grain crops achieve yields comparable to annual varieties when faced with “trade-offs between seed and perennial organs?” Are such yields only attainable by “sacrificing longevity?” Strategies must be devised to “create herbaceous perennial crops with abundant seed production.”
  • Genetic Loads – This is simply defined as “the presence of deleterious alleles in a population.” In perennials, compared to annuals, “highly recessive deleterious alleles can arise at a rate faster than they can be efficiently eliminated.” Low seed set, among other things, may be a result of genetic load, so breeders of perennial grains must “account for and actively reduce genetic load.”
  • Bottlenecks – This refers to the loss of genetic diversity that occurs when population size is reduced. During a bottleneck, “previously rare deleterious recessive genes” can accumulate; however, some models indicate that “inbreeding and the associated bottlenecks may be useful in accelerating domestication.” If the population is isolated and introduced to a new environment simultaneously, “the newly exposed variation could now be adaptive.” Also, “if additional genetic diversity is required,” crosses can be made with wild populations.
  • Pleiotropy – This means that “a single gene [is] affecting multiple traits.” When domesticating wild species, “it would be useful to predict the prevalence of pleiotropy and whether to expect positive or negative pleiotropy to dominate.”
  • Epistatsis – This occurs when the effect of one gene is dependent on the presence of another gene or genes. This is particularly important if “large-effect genes” (pleiotropy) are dependent on a “particular genetic background to function optimally,” because “removing one critical element will severely impact the whole structure.” Perennial grain crops will have to undergo “many generations of plant breeding” in order to ensure that desired genes are found “within a genetic background where their benefits can be used without negative side effects.”
  • Cryptic Variation – Genetic variation is cryptic when “the inheritance of a particular mutated allele has no effect on phenotype and thus is hidden from natural and artificial selection.” New environments or mutations can release cryptic variation. “Ranking candidate species for their likely domesticability” may be an effective approach to cryptic variation. “The best candidates for domestication” originate from areas where conditions are highly favorable for growth and reproduction as opposed to areas that are “resource-limited,” because they have experienced periods of “selective enrichment” that make them suitable for agriculture settings.
  • Past Domestication – Domestication involves a series of “evolutionary changes that may decrease the fitness of a species in the wild but increase it under human management.” Historically this was “likely driven by unconscious selection pressures,” but currently it is “driven by conscious selection.” Studies of past domestication events reveal “somewhat predictable stages” in the process. Even though “current domestication efforts might not follow historical precedent,…the order in which traits are subjected to strong selection may be important.” Investigation into domestication also suggests that “dramatic changes” in plant morphology can be accomplished by selection for a “small number of major-effect genes,” so breeding programs are advised to “first search for useful major genes and evaluate their effects before moving on to strategies designed to accumulate genes of small effect.”
  • Selection – The authors describe “four major limits to selection.” 1.) Desired traits “may only exist in our imagination.” 2.) “The necessary genetic variation may not exist in the population,” and so waiting for or inducing mutations may be required. 3.) There may be “negative genetic correlations between characters being selected,” which will slow response to selection. This can be addressed by subdividing the population, evaluating the population in a new environment, or crossing with other populations. 4.) Conversely, “insufficient genetic correlation between traits may reduce the response to selection.” This makes “finding superior genotypes challenging,” so the authors suggest breeding plants in a “uniform environment,” and then later the plants can “accumulate genes for tolerance to specific stresses in separate populations.”
Intermediate wheatgrass (Thinopyrum intermedium) "produces much larger seeds in the greenhouse during the winter than ever seen in the field during the summer," an example of phenotypic plasticity. (photo credit:

Intermediate wheatgrass (Thinopyrum intermedium) “produces much larger seeds in the greenhouse during the winter than ever seen in the field during the summer,” an example of phenotypic plasticity. (photo credit:

The authors determined that the best candidates for perennial grain breeding programs are plant populations that have high diversity between and within individual plants, plastic phenotypes (i.e. adaptable to changes in the environment), and “an evolutionary history that includes adaptation to high resource environments.” They also suggest that breeders “focus more on the required functions [like nonshattering fruits] than on morphological traits” because it will increase the feasibility of evaluating “very large experimental populations.” The ideal experimental set-up would consist of very large populations of widely spaced plants that are subdivided in order to perform evaluations from various angles. Lastly, the authors encourage breeders to embrace new plant forms and breeding strategies and be open to the possibility that perennial grain crops may not “look like modern annual grains.”

Using Wild Relatives to Improve Crop Plants

This is the thirteenth in a series of posts reviewing the 17 articles found in the October 2014 Special Issue of American Journal of Botany, Speaking of Food: Connecting Basic and Applied Science.

Back to the Wilds: Tapping Evolutionary Adaptations for Resilient Crops through Systematic Hybridization with Crop Wild Relatives by Emily Warschefsky, Varma Penmetsa, Douglas R. Cook, and Eric J. B. von Wettberg

The nature of domestication involves the narrowing of genetic diversity through a series of crosses and selections that results in organisms well suited for particular environments and/or purposes. In the short term, this arrangement seems to suit our needs, that is until the climate shifts, novel pests and diseases invade, agricultural soils become degraded, or some other calamity ensues. Then we must select a new form to take the place of the old one that is no longer suitable. Additionally, the varieties currently in use may be doing well within their current parameters, but their performance may be found lacking if placed in different environments or grown in alternate systems, such as one that relies on fewer petrochemical inputs.

The wild relatives of crop plants have a long history of being used in breeding programs to provide specific traits for improving domesticated varieties. Interest in this has increased thanks to technological advancements (such as marker-assisted selection and genomic selection) and the greater availability of germplasm. Introgression (the transfer of genes from one species to another through hybridization and repeated backcrossing) using crop wild relatives has mainly been aimed at introducing traits like resistance to specific pests and diseases, tolerance of certain abiotic stresses, and greater yields. In other words, crop wild relatives are typically screened for a few main traits that might be useful in breeding programs, neglecting the possibility that the introgression of a larger suite of traits may be beneficial long-term.

This article discusses the possibility of using “crop wild relative collections that [have been] systematically built to represent the range of adaptations found in natural populations” to improve crop plants. By using these “purpose-built populations that are hybrids between crops and their wild relatives,” crop plants introgressed with “full sets of wild diversity” will be better adapted to a wide variety of environments, soils, climates, and agricultural systems. In order to “illustrate the gains that are possible,” the authors review published studies of hybridization (both naturally occurring and human mediated). They then “propose a multi-step framework for utilizing naturally occurring variation in wild relatives of crops.”

Grapefruit (Citrus x paradisi) - A hybrid between sweet orange (Citrus sinensis) and shaddock (Citrus maxima) that "occurred far beyond the region of domestication and rather recently [the 18th centruy]." (photo credit: wikimedia commons)

Grapefruit (Citrus x paradisi) – A hybrid between sweet orange (C. sinensis) and shaddock (C. maxima) that “occurred far beyond the region of domestication and rather recently [the 18th century].” (photo credit: wikimedia commons)

Hybridization can occur between two individuals of different cultivars, varieties, subspecies, species, genera, etc. The genetics of the resulting offspring is a combination of the two parents, and depending on the circumstances, a hybridization event “can have drastically different consequences.” For this reason, “hybridization is thought of as both a creative and a restrictive force in evolution.” It is, however, “the potential for the production of novelty that makes hybridization such an intriguing – and potentially useful – phenomenon.”

In their discussion of hybridization between crops and their wild relatives, the authors reveal some “obstacles that limit the use of wild relatives in breeding programs.”

  • Poor Agronomic Performance – “Crop wild relatives often lack important domestication traits.” They may have shattering pods, irregular germination timing, or phenologies that inhibit their use in certain regions.
  • Poor Representation in Germplasm Collections – “Only 2-6% of international germplasm collections are of crop wild relatives.” There are some crop wild relatives that are well-represented, but others have been “poorly collected” or “almost ignored,” and some crops still “lack well-identified wild relatives.” One reason for this disparity is that a large number of these plants “occur in geopolitically unstable areas where collection has long been complicated.”
  • Unpredictability of Phenotypes – “Phenotypes of wild individuals are often assessed in agricultural settings, a largely uninformative practice when the overall wild phenotype is specifically adapted for fitness in the wild but not cultivated settings.” This makes for an inaccurate comparison with domesticated varieties, so when “crop-wild hybrids” are formed, phenotypes are hard to predict. Backcrossing is necessary in order to recover the “essential crop phenotype” while capturing the desired traits of the wild relative.

The authors also highlight the need for conservation of crop wild relatives, as “these species are nearly universally threatened.” The catalog of threats to their survival is similar to so many other threatened species: the loss, fragmentation, and degradation of habitats, climate change, invasive species, and over-harvesting (“in the case of medicinally and pharmaceutically useful species”). One threat, perhaps ironically, is agricultural crops crossing with nearby wild relatives, especially where transgenic genes in crops are being transferred to wild populations. In order to better realize the potential that crop wild relatives have in improving domesticated varieties, they must first be protected in their natural habitats.

Desert sunflower (Helianthus deserticola) - One of three hybrid species born of H. annuus and H. petiolaris, "highlighting the expanded potential of hybrid species...through colonization of extreme habitats where neither parental species can survive." (photo credit:

Desert sunflower (Helianthus deserticola) – One of three hybrid species born of H. annuus and H. petiolaris, “highlighting the expanded potential of hybrid species…through colonization of extreme habitats where neither parental species can survive.” (photo credit:

The authors propose a 5 step plan for systematic utilization of crop wild relatives in agricultural breeding programs. The steps include building a comprehensive collection of crop wild relatives, sequencing their genomes, creating purpose-driven hybrid populations between wild relatives and crop plants, developing a predictive network of genotype-phenotype associations, and deploying identified phenotypes into crop breeding efforts. This article is one of the open access articles in this issue. If you are interested in this topic, including this 5 step plan, I encourage you to read the article to learn more. 

Apples and Genetic Bottlenecks

This is the eleventh in a series of posts reviewing the 17 articles found in the October 2014 Special Issue of American Journal of Botany, Speaking of Food: Connecting Basic and Applied Science.

Genetic Diversity in Malus x domestica (Rosaceae) through Time in Response to Domestication by Briana L. Gross, Adam D. Henk, Christopher M. Richards, Gannara Fazio, and Gayle M. Volk

Domestication is a selection process. Plants with desirable traits are selected (consciously or unconsciously) and removed from the larger population to be grown out and selected from again. Over time, this series of selections results in a cultivated variety that differs substantially from the larger, origin population. This process, while yielding crop varieties that feed a growing population of humans, also results in a series of genetic bottlenecks, meaning they experience a reduction in genetic variation compared to their wild relatives.

There are two points were bottlenecks occur in the domestication process. The first takes place “during the initial domestication event as a subset of the wild population is brought into a cultivated setting.” This is called a “domestication bottleneck.” The second, known as an “improvement bottleneck,” happens when “modern, elite cultivars are selected from the broad variety of landraces [locally adapted varieties]” that were developed during the original domestication event. This stepwise reduction in genetic diversity “limits the options of plant breeders, even as they face the need to increase crop productivity and sustainability” in today’s changing climate.

Most of what we know about genetic bottlenecks during domestication is derived from studies of annual fruit and grain crops. However, “non-grain crops, and perennials in particular, respond to domestication or are domesticated in ways that are fundamentally different.” For this reason, the authors investigated genetic bottlenecks in apple (Malus x domestica), “one of the most widely distributed perennial fruit crops.” They then compared what they learned to other published studies of annual and perennial fruit crops in order to gain more insight into how genetic diversity is affected in these types of crops during domestication.

The common apple was domesticated in central Asia around 4,000 years ago and is a hybrid of at least three species: Malus sieversii, Malus orientalis, and Malus sylvestris. Today, apples are grown throughout the world, and there are more than 7,500 known cultivars with new cultivars being released regularly. Despite this impressive diversity, just fifteen cultivars make up 90% of apple production in the U.S. The authors of this study analyzed DNA from 11 of the 15 major cultivars as well as DNA from the three main wild progenitor species.

Malus x domestica 'Gala' - One of the top 15 apple varieties produced in the U.S. (photo credit: wikimedia commons)

Malus x domestica ‘Gala’ – One of the top 15 apple varieties produced in the U.S. (photo credit: wikimedia commons)

Perennial fruit crops typically experience “mild genetic bottlenecks” compared to annual fruit crops, and the authors confirmed this to be the case with domesticated apples, finding “no significant reduction in genetic diversity through time across the last eight centuries.” Because apple cultivars are maintained by clonal propagation, they can often be traced back to when they were originally developed, making bottlenecks easier to observe. The authors found that “the most recently developed or described cultivars of apples show little to no reduction in genetic diversity compared with the most ancient cultivars.” Cultivars developed since the 1950’s show increased diversity, which may partly be the result of plant breeders introducing genes from another wild species, Malus floribunda.

After a review of the literature, the authors found that apples have retained the highest amount of genetic diversity through the domestication process compared to other fruits, both annual and perennial. More studies are needed in order to confirm the accuracy and extent of these findings; however, the unique story of apple domestication may help explain why it has been “particularly prone to retaining diversity through time.” First, it was widely distributed across Eurasia during its early days of domestication. Second, it experienced “admixture with cultivars” as it expanded its range. For example, after being introduced to North America, it became naturalized, resulting in gene flow occurring between naturalized individuals and cultivated varieties. Offspring of these populations (“chance seedlings”), were then selected, cloned, and became named cultivars.

Despite the mild genetic bottleneck observed in apples, the authors warned that a “dependence on a small number of cultivars” for the majority of U.S. apple production may be resulting in some loss of genetic variation. Relying on so few cultivars may leave apple production vulnerable to pests, diseases, and climate change. “Careful management” is advised as “the continued genetic resilience of the crop is dependent on the genetic diversity of cultivars that are present in living and cryopreserved collections around the world.”

Malus sylvestris (common crabapple) - One of the three main players involved in the apple domestication story (photo credit:

Blossoms of Malus sylvestris (common crabapple) – One of three main species involved in the history of apple domestication (photo credit:

The Nonshattering Trait in Cereal Crops

This is the tenth in a series of posts reviewing the 17 articles found in the October 2014 Special Issue of American Journal of Botany, Speaking of Food: Connecting Basic and Applied Science.

Morphological Diversity and Genetic Regulation of Inflorescence Abscission Zones in Grasses by Andrew N. Doust, Margarita Mauro-Herrera, Amie D. Francis, and Laura C. Shand

Seed dispersal is a key aspect of reproduction in plants. Producing seeds requires large amounts of energy and resources, and if the seeds don’t find their way to a suitable environment where they can germinate and grow, then it may be all for naught. There are several modes of seed dispersal (wind, gravity, water, animals, ballistics), and each plant species has its own story to tell in this regard. However, one commonality that most all seed dispersal stories share is “disarticulation [separation] of the seed or fruit from the body of the plant via means of the formation of an abscission zone.”

Seeds are typically dispersed inside fruits, and attached to the fruits may be other plant structures (such as parts of the inflorescence or, in the case of tumbleweeds, the whole plant). The entire dispersal unit (seed, fruit, etc.) is known as a diaspore. In the grass family, a fruit is called a caryopsis. It is a unique fruit because the fruit wall is fused to the seed, making it difficult to distinguish between the two. Methods of disarticulation in grasses are diverse, with diaspores varying greatly in their sizes and the plant parts they contain. Below is a figure from this article showing this diversity. Abscission zones are depicted using red dotted lines.

Domesticated crop plants do not exhibit the same levels of disarticulation that their wild relatives do. This is because “nonshattering forms” were selected during early stages of domestication due to their ease of harvest. Today, all domesticated cereal crops are nonshattering, and all began by selecting “a nonshattering phenotype where the grain [did] not fall easily from the inflorescence.”  However, the wild relatives of cereal crops, “as well as grasses as a whole, differ widely in their manner of disarticulation [as indicated in the figure above].” A mutation in the genes that control abscission is what leads to nonshattering phenotypes. Because all domesticated cereal crops began as nonshattering mutants, the authors of this study were interested in investigating whether or not there is a common genetic pathway across all cereal crops and their wild grass relatives that controls the abscission trait.

The “genetic control of loss of shattering” is important to those interested in domestication, thus it “has been studied in all major crops.” Some of these studies suggest that there is a common genetic pathway that controls abscission in cereal crops, while others suggest there may not be. The authors of this study suspect that “there is potential for considerable genetic complexity” in this pathway, and so before we can determine “the extent to which there are elements of a common genetic pathway,” we must first develop “a better understanding of both diversity of disarticulation patterns and genetic evidence for shared pathways across the grasses.”

In an effort to begin to answer this question, the authors used herbaria vouchers to analyze “morphological data on abscission zones for over 10,000 species of grasses.” They also reviewed published scientific studies concerning the genetics of disarticulation in grasses and cereal crops. They determined that “the evidence for a common genetic pathway is tantalizing but incomplete,” and that their results could be used to inform a “research plan that could test the common genetic pathway model more thoroughly.” Further studies can also “provide new targets for control and fine-tuning of the shattering response” in crop plants, which could result in “reducing harvest losses and providing opportunities for selection in emerging domesticated crops.”

Foxtail millet, Setaria italic (photo credit:

Foxtail millet (Setaria italica), a widely cultivated species of millet, has “shattering genes” similar to those found in sorghum and rice (photo credit:


Tales of Weedy Waterhemp and Weedy Rice

This is the eighth in a series of posts reviewing the 17 articles found in the October 2014 Special Issue of American Journal of Botany, Speaking of Food: Connecting Basic and Applied Science.

Population Genetics and Origin of the Native North American Agricultural Weed Waterhemp (Amaranthus tuberculatus; Amarantheaceae) by Katherine E. Waselkov and Kenneth M. Olsen

Weeds are “the single greatest threat to agricultural productivity worldwide, costing an estimated $33 billion per year in the United States alone.” Understanding the origins, population structures, and genetic compositions of agricultural weeds will not only help us better mitigate current weed problems but may also help prevent the development of future weed species.

In the introduction, the authors present three modes of weed origination: 1. De-domestication (“domesticated species becoming feral”) 2. Hybridization of domesticated species with related wild species 3. Expansion of wild plants into agricultural ecosystems “through plasticity, adaptation, or exaptation [a shift in function of a particular trait].” In this study, the authors focused on the third mode – the wild-to-weed pathway – claiming that it receives “less attention by evolutionary biologists, even though all weeds without close crop relatives must have followed this pathway to agricultural invasion, and even though this type of weed species is the most common.”  Due to the dearth of research, there are several questions yet to be fully addressed: Does invasion require evolutionary changes in the plant and/or changes in agricultural practices? What is more common, single or multiple wild sources? What are the morphological, physiological, and ecological traits that might “predispose a wild species to expand into agricultural habitats?”

To help answer these questions, the authors turned to waterhemp (Amaranthus tuberculatus), a weed that, since first invading agricultural land in the 1950’s, has “become a major problem for corn and soybean farmers in Missouri, Iowa, and Illinois.” Waterhemp is native to the midwestern United States, where it can be found growing along riverbanks and in floodplains. It is a small seeded, dioecious (“obligately outcrossing”), wind-pollinated, annual plant with fruits that can be either dehiscent or indehiscent. Herbicide resistance has been detected in A. tuberculatus for at least six classes of herbicides, making it a difficult weed to control.

There is evidence that A. tuberculatus was previously in the process of diverging into two species, an eastern one and a western one, geographically separated by the Mississippi River. However, “human disturbance brought the taxa back into contact, and possibly gave rise to the agriculturally invasive strain through admixture.” Using population genetic data, the authors set out to determine if the present-day species would show evidence of a past divergence in progress prior to the 20th century. They also hypothesized that “the agricultural weed originated through hybridization between the two diverged lineages.”

Waterhemp, Amaranthus tuberculatus (photo credit:

Waterhemp, Amaranthus tuberculatus (photo credit:

After genotyping 38 populations from across the species range, the authors confirmed that A. tuberculatus was indeed diverging into two species. Today, the western variety (var. rudis) has expanded eastward into the territory of the eastern variety (var. tuberculatus), extending as far as Indiana. Its expansion appears to be facilitated by becoming an agricultural weed. Data did not confirm the hypothesis that the weedy strain was a hybridized version of the two varieties, but instead mainly consists of the western variety, suggesting that “admixture is not a pre-requisite for weediness in A. tuberculatus.”

Further investigation revealed that the western variety may have already been “genetically and phenotypically suited to agricultural environments,” and thus did not require “genetic changes to be successful” as an agricultural weed. “Finer-scale geographic sampling” and deeper genetic analyses may help determine whatever genetic basis there might be for this unfortunate situation.

The Evolution of Flowering Strategies in US Weedy Rice by Carrie S. Thurber, Michael Reagon, Kenneth M. Olsen, Yulin Jia, and Ana L. Caicedo

This paper looks at an agricultural weed that originated from the de-domestication of a crop plant (one of the three modes of weed origination stated above). A weed that belongs to the same species as the crop it invades is referred to as a conspecific weed, and weedy rice is “one of the most devastating conspecific weeds in the United States.”  Oryza sativa is the main species of rice cultivated in the US, and most varieties are from the group tropical japonica. The two main varieties of weedy rice are straw hull (SH) and black-hull awned (BHA), which originated from cultivated varieties in the groups indica and aus respectively. Because weedy rice is so closely related to cultivated rice, it is incredibly difficult to manage, and there is concern that cross-pollination will result in the movement of traits between groups. For this reason, the authors of this study investigated flowering times of each group in order to assess the “extent to which flowering time differed between these groups” and to determine “whether genes affecting flowering time variation in rice could play a role in the evolution of weedy rice in the US.”

Rice, Oryza sativa (illustration credit: wikimedia commons)

Rice, Oryza sativa (illustration credit: wikimedia commons)

Crop plants have typically been selected for “uniformity in flowering time to facilitate harvesting.” The flowering time of weed species helps determine their effectiveness in competing with crop plants. Flowering earlier than crop plants results in weed seeds dispersing before harvest, “thereby escaping into the seed bank.” Flowering simultaneously with crop plants can “decrease conspicuousness, and seed may be unwittingly collected and replanted” along with crop seeds. Simultaneous flowering of weeds and crops is of special concern when the two are closely related since there is potential for gene transfer, especially when the crop varieties are herbicide resistant as can be the case with rice (“60-65% of cultivated rice in [the southern US] is reported to be herbicide resistant”).

For this study, researchers observed phenotypes and gene regions of a broad collection of Oryza, including cultivated varieties, weed species, and ancestors of weed and cultivated species. They found that “SH weeds tend to flower significantly earlier than the local tropical japonica crop, while BHA weeds tend to flower concurrently or later than the crop.” When the weeds were compared with their cultivated progenitors, it was apparent that both weed varieties had “undergone rapid evolution,” with SH weeds flowering earlier and BHA weeds flowering later than their respective relatives. These findings were consistent with analyses of gene regions which found functional Hd1 alleles in SH weeds (resulting in day length sensitivity and early flowering under short-day conditions) and non-functional Hd1 alleles in BHA weeds (“consistent with loss of day-length sensitivity and later flowering under short-day conditions”). However, the authors determined that there is more to investigate concerning the genetic basis of the evolution of flowering time in weedy rice.

In light of these results, hybridization is of little concern between cultivated rice and SH weeds. BHA weeds, on the other hand, “have a greater probability of hybridization with the crop based on flowering time and Hd1 haplotype.” The authors “predict that hybrids between weedy and cultivated rice are likely to be increasingly seen in US rice fields,” which, considering the current level of herbicide resistant rice in cultivation, is quite disconcerting.

Carrots and Strawberries, Genetics and Phylogenetics

This is the fifth in a series of posts reviewing the 17 articles found in the October 2014 Special Issue of American Journal of Botany, Speaking of Food: Connecting Basic and Applied Science.

As expected, some of the articles in this issue get into pretty deep discussions about genetics and phylogenetics. Advancements in sequencing and analyzing DNA have not only led to better understanding of genes and their functions but have also given us greater insight into how species are related and their proper place on the phylogenetic tree.  While I have some background in these things and can follow along at a basic level, I certainly don’t feel confident in authoritatively summarizing such findings . I also question whether or not a high level discussion of phylogenetics makes for an interesting and engaging blog post. Plant systematics geeks are aggressively nodding “yes”; other readers’ eyes have glazed over by this point.

I am certainly not arguing that this is not important stuff. When a species we have become familiar with is suddenly given a new scientific name, it is not too annoy those of us who are trying to learn the names of things, rather it is because something novel has been discovered about the way living things are organized, about their life history – the way they came to be.  We should be celebrating advancements that allow us to look back over the millions of years of life on earth and see how various species emerged, evolved, disappeared, were replaced, and ultimately arrived at what we view today. And we should be humbled to know that these present forms are not the climax, that we are simply getting a glimpse in the evolutionary trajectory of the organisms around us. Perhaps it will prompt us to protect them, understanding that every scrap of biodiversity is important and worth conserving. After all, who are we to decide how the story goes?

The sixth and seventh articles in “Speaking of Food” are about carrots and strawberries respectively. Discussion about the genetics and phylogenetics of these plants dominates the articles, with the application being that we can improve these crops by better understanding their genetics, and we can gain insights into plant evolution by better understanding their phylogenetics.  Rather than give you a thorough overview of each of these articles (for reasons stated above), I am offering you bullet points of a few of the things that I learned while reading them.

Phylogenomics of the Carrot Genus (Daucus, Apiaceae) by Carlos Arbizu, Holly Ruess, Douglas Senalik, Philipp W. Simon, and David M. Spooner

  • The domesticated carrot (Daucus carota subsp. sativus) is “the most notable cultivated member of Apiaceae [a family consisting of 455 genera and over 3,500 species] in terms of economic importance and nutrition.”
  • Carrots are our primary source of vitamin A (due to high levels of alpha and beta carotenes), “accounting for about half of dietary intake.”
  • Wild carrot species can be used to improve the domesticated carrot by providing genes that will help with pest and disease resistance, yield increases, better nutrient value, etc.
  • “The taxonomy of D. carota is particularly problematical. It undergoes widespread hybridization experimentally and spontaneously with commercial varieties and other named subspecies.”
  • The researchers, upon examining more than half of the known Daucus species and 9 species that are very closely related, identified several Daucus spp. that “may be easily incorporated in carrot breeding programs.”
  • This study determined “misidentifications in germplasm collections” and highlighted “the difficulty of defining subspecies of D. carota.”
Flowers of Daucus carota (photo credit:

Flowers of Daucus carota (photo credit:

Fragaria: A Genus with Deep Historical Roots and Ripe for Evolutionary and Ecological Insights by Aaron Liston, Richard Cronn, and Tia-Lynn Ashman

  •  Fresh strawberries are fifth on the list of fresh fruit consumption in the United States.
  • “Resistance to a Fragaria-specific powdery mildew has been demonstrated in F. x ananassa [domesticated strawberry] transformed with a peach locus, and the cultivation of such transgenic plants could reduce pesticide usage in strawberry.” Commercial production awaits, though, “due to public resistance, a lack of industry support, and concerns over gene flow to the wild species of Fragaria.”
  • “The modern cultivated strawberry, Fragaria x ananassa, originated in the 18th century in Europe from hybridization between two species imported from North and South America. The parental species, F. virginiana and F. chiloensis, also hybridize naturally in northwestern North America, but there is no evidence that they were ever cultivated by the native Americans in this area.”
  • The stolons of strawberry plants can be used as dental floss!? So said Antoine Nicolas Duchesne in his 1766 book about strawberries. I guess I’ll have to read his account to get more insight into this interesting detail.
  • F. x ananassa has flowers that are self-compatible, but it is “derived from the hybridization of two wild species that show gender dimorphism,” which is common in the genus. For this reason, Fragaria, is “proving to be an exceptional model system for understanding the sexual system and sex chromosome evolution.”
  • Fragaria species occur across a broad range of temperate habitats and elevations from sea level sand dunes to moist, productive meadows to high, dry, mountain summits.” They are adapted to a wide variety of environmental conditions. “This variation represents a potential source of genetic variation for climatic tolerance, disease/pest resistance, and yield-associated traits.”
  • The Fragaria genus, like virtually all genera of flowering plants, includes polyploid species. Researchers conclude that Fragaria is an “ideal system for exploring relationships between ploidy formation, ploidy level, and the coordination of transcriptomic control.” They also believe that continued studies of “ecological and evolutionary genomics in Fragaria has the potential to provide further insights into hybridization.”
  • Finally, the researchers advise that the “familiarity of strawberries provides an opportunity to engage and educate the public about botanical research.”
Broadpetal Strawberry, Fragaria virginiana supsp. platypetala (photo credit: wikimedia commons)

Broadpetal Strawberry, Fragaria virginiana supsp. platypetala (photo credit: wikimedia commons)