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 nationalgeographic.com)

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 nationalgeographic.com)

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: www.eol.org)

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: www.eol.org)

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.”

Your Food Is a Polyploid

This is the seventh 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.

Doubling Down on Genomes: Polyploidy and Crop Plants by Simon Renny-Byfield and Jonathan F. Wendel

This is another fascinating but dense article about genetics. The major theme, as the title suggests, is polyploidy and its role in crop domestication and future crop improvements – a sub-theme being that by studying polyploidy in crop plants, we can gain insights into polyploidy generally as it relates to non-crop plants. Polyploidy – or whole genome duplication – is “where an organism possesses more than a diploid complement of chromosomes.” Typically, chromosomes come in sets of two, one set from each parent. Organisms with this type of an arrangement are called diploids. Polyploids are organisms with more than two sets of chromosomes. In general terms, this can occur as a result of two species hybridizing (interspecific hybridization), which is called allopolyploidy, or it can occur as a result of spontaneous genome doubling in a single species, which is called autopolyploidy. This article deals mainly with allopolyploid as polyploidy in crop plants is largely a result of hybridization.

Much of what we know about polyploidy has been discovered relatively recently during what is referred to as the “genomics era.” Traditionally, identifying polyploids was done by examining the number of chromosomes in a cell. Today, technological advances such as next generation sequencing have brought new insights into polyploidy and allowed us to identify evidence of it in organisms that cannot be observed simply by counting chromosomes. Plants that are now considered diploids went through periods of whole genome duplication in the distant past; however, due to genome downsizing and other events, they present themselves as diploids. This historical polyploidy is called paleopolyploidy. Evidence now suggests that all seed plants and flowering plants (angiosperms) are “rightly considered to have a paleopolyploidy ancestry.”

As I did with past articles that were very genetics heavy, I will use the bullet point method to list some of the main things that I learned from the article rather than offering a full review. As with any article that I review, my goal is to present the information in a digestible manner for as wide of an audience as possible without misrepresenting or oversimplifying the science and the research. This seems to be one of the main struggles faced by all who write about science for a general audience – a topic to be explored another time, perhaps.

  • The recent discovery that the genomes of all seed plants and angiosperms have “experienced multiple rounds of whole genome duplication” is “one of the most significant realizations to emerge from the genomics era.” In the past decade, “the ubiquity and scope of whole genome duplication has truly come to light,” and we no longer need to ask, “Is this species a polyploid?,” but rather “how many rounds of whole genome duplication occurred in the ancestral lineage of this taxon, and when was the most recent polyploidy?”
  • Recently formed polyploids are not stable and experience a period of “genomic shock.” They must “overcome an initial fitness cost associated with genomic [deviations].” These “large-scale perturbations [events that alter the function of a biological system] have the potential to add novel genetic material to the genome, potentially useful in the context of domestication and selection.”
  • Plants that appear to be diploids are actually paleopolyploids that have undergone a process called diploidization “in which the genome of a polyploidy is pruned, often by poorly understood mechanisms, such that it returns to a diploid-like condition.” Over time, duplicated genes are removed, DNA is eliminated, chromosome numbers decrease, etc. The organism then presents itself as a diploid, however traces of its polyploidy past remain detectable.
  • It has long been understood that hybrids can exhibit what is known as hybrid vigor (or heterosis) wherein they express traits that are superior to their parents, such as faster growth and higher yields. This is the reason plant breeders make such crosses. Debate continues concerning the “precise causes of heterosis.” Current research is focused on the epigenetic variability that is “induced by hybridization and polyploidy.” Epigenetics, which concerns variation that is not a result of alterations to DNA, is an emerging field that can be advanced through the study of polyploidy. Additionally, “the utilization of epigenetic diversity within crop species will provide a novel avenue for crop improvement in the coming years.”
  • While polyploids have great potential to increase our understanding of genomics and greatly improve “targeted breeding efforts,” they are historically difficult to study mainly due to the large size of their genomes compared to diploids. “Larger genomes are more expensive to sequence and require greater computational finesse.” To date, “only a single example of a ‘complete’ polyploidy genome exists, that of autotetraploid potato.” The authors “anticipate that these methodological challenges will soon be overcome by advances in genome sequencing technologies,” and along with “other powerful approaches,” continued insights into polyploidy will be attained.
Upland cotton (Gossypium hirsutum) is the most widely cultivated species of cotton in the United States. It is an allopolyploid that produces fibers that are "considerably longer, stronger, and whiter than are possible to obtain from any diploid." (photo credit: www.eol.org)

Upland cotton (Gossypium hirsutum) is the most widely cultivated species of cotton in the United States. It is an allopolyploid, and it produces fibers that are “considerably longer, stronger, and whiter than are possible to obtain from any diploid.” (photo credit: www.eol.org)