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Why popcorn pops

Popped corn Photo: D3 San Francisco, flickr (click to see photo in original context

Popping corn, or anything else, all comes down to pressure. Pop-corn has a particularly impermeable pericarp (the corn kernel’s shell), so as it is heated, the water inside the kernel vaporizes into steam and the starch turns into something close to a liquid. Eventually the heat creates enough pressure to split the pericarp and the starch of the corn kernel bursts out, resolidifying into the distinctive shape of popcorn. If there is even the smallest hole in the pericarp, the steam can escape from the kernel as it’s generated so the pressure never builds up enough to explode the pericarp — the reason some kernels will fail to pop in every batch. The explosive build up of steam is also the reason tea kettles need to be able to release steam while they’re used to boil water. The alternative would be exploding tea kettles which are a lot more dangerous (and a lot less tasty) than exploding corn kernels.

Un-popped popcorn photo: MissTessmacher, flickr (click to see photo in its original context)

It was this reason (along with my discovery of the website on April 1st) that I was so suspicious of the idea of popped sorghum a few days ago. Thanks to Party Cactus and Jeremy, I now know that sorghum does indeed pop like corn (there’s even a variety called “Tarahumara Popping”) and, in fact, thanks to the link Jeremy provided, I’ve discovered that most grains and even some other things (including cowpeas!) can be popped using the proper equipment. (more…)

BBC on drought tolerant maize/corn

There’s a new episode of BBC’s Discovery: Feeling the World out this morning. It’s only 26 minutes long, and the full piece is definitely worth a listen, but if you don’t have 26 minutes, the meat of the post can be summarized in 8 minutes:

3:20-7:54: Introducing the subject, developing drought tolerant varieties of maize in Africa, and the fact that the researchers working on it as using conventional breeding, marker assisted breeding and a genetically engineered trait Monsanto. When battling starvation, you use any tool that comes to hand.

18:40-21:20: This part is almost hard to listen to. You can hear the raw emotion in the researcher’s voice as the reporter keeps trying to make genetic engineering sound, at best, like a last resort. Couldn’t they just try irrigating more crop land she suggests?

25:10-end. Conclusion. I also thought this part was very powerful.

A few complaints: (more…)


Who could have predicted maize geneticists would be so interested in maize genes? The entry I posted last night on Purple plant1 and Colored aleurone1 easily received more traffic in its first day on the site (it’s still got a long way to go before it catches long term readership attractors like water chestnuts and the NIPGR tomatoes), than any entry since the heady days of the maize genome release back in November.

The relationships of the four grass species with sequenced genomes. The branches are NOT to scale with how long ago the species split apart. Green stars represent whole genome duplications. The most important one to notice in the one in the ancestry of maize/corn. That duplication means that every region in sorghum, rice, or brachypodium is equivalent to two different places in the maize genome, one descended from each of the two copies of the genome that existed after the duplication.

And this morning the dataset I drew that example from, 464 classical maize genes mapped onto the maize genome assembly plus syntenic orthologs in up to four grass species: sorghum, rice, brachypodium, and the other region of the maize genome created by the maize whole genome duplication (technically syntenic homeologs since we started in maize to begin with, by the principle is the same), went out to the maize genetics community (thank you MaizeGDB!).

A postdoc in our lab tells me more people have visited CoGe today than any day on record (and we hit that mark before noon!).

Anyway, thank you guys, it’s great to feel appreciated!

The Most Studied Genes of Maize (and why we love kernel phenotypes)

Unique citations determined from papered linked to from MaizeGDB gene locus pages. Images of c1 and y1 segregating years by Gerald Neuffer and made available through MaizeGDB.

* = tied for number of citations

** = some mutant alleles have kernel phenotypes.

If you want to become one of the famous mutant corn genes, it helps if you have an effect that is visible in corn kernels instead of only from fully grown plants.

And here is why:

  • A geneticist could determine that the version of c1 that creates yellow kernels is recessive to the version that creates purple kernels just from looking at the ear of corn on left.
  • Furthermore, they could tell you that both the male parent (the plant that provided the pollen) and the female parent (the plant on which the ear of corn grew) were both heteryzygous for the c1 genes (they each had one dominant version of the genes and one recessive version), and therefore the corn kernels the parent plants were grown from were both purple.
  • They would know with certainty that all of the yellow kernels contain two recessive versions of the c1 gene.
  • While they couldn’t predict with absolute certainty whether a specific purple corn kernel on that ear carried two dominant versions of the c1 gene or one dominant and one recessive version, they would know there was a 1/3 chance that kernel has two dominant copies, and a 2/3 chance it had one dominant and one recessive copy.
  • That geneticist could make all sorts of predictions about what ears would look like in future generations depending on what colors of corn kernels were planted and which plants were mated with each other.

All this from a single picture of an ear of corn. For a phenotype seen in corn plants but not in kernels (like Knotted1), a geneticist would have to plant a row or more of corn seeds from an ear and examine the growing plants to get the same quantity of information.

And that is why mutations with kernel phenotypes have been so popular over a century of maize genetics research.

Corn Smut

Corn Smut photo: oceandesetoiles, flickr (click to see photo in its original context)

And no that doesn’t mean corn pornography*. Corn smut, or Ustilago maydis, is a fungus that infects corn plants. It’s an old acquantance from my days working in the field. We always used to tell the new hires that corn smut was a rare delicacy in some countries (as we’d been told ourselves), but this was in the days before iPhones so until recently I never actually checked on this bit of received wisdom.

Turns out this particular bit of knowledge was true:

The immature galls, gathered two to three weeks after an ear of corn is infected, still retain moisture and, when cooked, have a flavor described as mushroom-like, sweet, savory, woody, and earthy.

More corn smut. Photo: moskatexugo, flickr (click to see photo in its original context)

I haven’t been able to figure out what the trade off in nutrition is between the ear of corn that is produced by a normal plant and the fungal galls that can be harvested from a plant infected with corn smut. I’d imagine corn smut provides more (and more complete) protein than an ear of corn (assuming corn smut is nutritionally similar to mushrooms.) But what’s the comparison in number of calories? The fungus is certainly sold at a higher price pound for pound.

My renewed interest in corn smut comes courtesy of a new paper** that came out in PLoS Biology describing how the fungus steals energy from infected corn plants without triggering the corn’s usual anti-fungal defenses. It’s an interesting read, you can check out the paper itself since PLoS Biology is open access, or Diane Kelley’s summary at “Science Made Cool.”

I’d seen a number of talks recently about another fungal parasite, powdery mildew in Arabidopsis, but somehow it’s much easier to focus on this stuff now that I can connect it back to corn. Even mammalian systems can be interesting*** once the make that connection.

*Please PLEASE don’t let that phrase start showing up in the search terms people use to find my site!

**Wahl R, Wippel K, Goos S, Kämper J, Sauer N (2010) A Novel High-Affinity Sucrose Transporter Is Required for Virulence of the Plant Pathogen Ustilago maydis. PLoS Biol 8(2): e1000303. doi:10.1371/journal.pbio.1000303

***The talk I’m practicing for Monday actually uses an example of a pheromone receptor in new world monkeys that was lost 23 million years ago in old world monkeys (including us humans).

How many maize/corn genes have actually been studied? (Not a lot)

When the maize genome paper came out last November (see the summary of this blog’s maize day coverage) it included information on 32,690 genes within the maize genome.  These were the genes which the researchers involved in sequencing the genome were very confident really were genes. And by themselves those 30,000+ genes put the maize genome way ahead of our own. Of course EVERY plant genome ever sequenced has contained more genes than we do, so you’d think by now this wouldn’t be news any more. We’re not the most genetically complex creatures on the planet, and we’ll just have to learn to live with that fact.

But where was I? Oh yeah, gene counts. 32,690 high confidence genes*. Of those, how many have been studied individually? (more…)

The Color of Corn and Cultural Values

MAT_kinase has sparked an interesting discussion about the associations people have with corn of different colors. I’d previously heard that yellow corn (where pre-vitamin A carotenoids are produced in the kernels) isn’t popular in Africa, with the reason usually being given as its association with American food aid.* If yellow corn comes predominantely from food aid, it eventually becomes associated with being poor and/or starving, so that when people have a choice they eat other varieties of corn. I can’t find where I read it, but I vividly remember reading an interview with a woman who talked about the shame of eating yellow food-aid corn, knowing that it had originally been intended to feed livestock in the US, not people.

MAT points out another more pragmatic reason yellow corn may not be favored in Africa that I hadn’t heard of before. Apparently the extra carotenoids make yellow corn more susceptiable to spoilage than white corn varieties, a very pertenent issue in areas without access to the kinds of storage facilities we take for granted in American agriculture.

Jeremy at the Agricultural Biodiversity Weblog picked up the torch, highlighting a number of their own previous posts relevant to the discussion, including one by fellow blogger Luigi that relates the reaction of his own wife, originally from Kenya, on ordering polenta** at a restuarant and receiving a yellow dish.

Fortunately breeds of corn that contain even more beta carotene (the carotenoid most easily converted into vitamin A by our bodies) aren’t even yellow all the time. Although I wasn’t able to find a freely available picture, sometimes they’re ORANGE.*** While it turns out the correlation between color and beta carotene content isn’t perfect****, there’s still reason to hope varieties bred for the highest pre-vitamin A content will end up a striking orange color. For a visual examples of how orange corn can get, check out check out Dr. Rocheford’s lab website.

Will the distinction between orange and yellow***** be enough to get over the Africa’s lack of enthusiasm for yellow corn? Will the benefits of a diet with more vitamin A be enough to outweight the issues with yellow corn going “off” if stored improperly? I certainly hope the answers to both these questions are yes, but we won’t know for sure until we try. And there are some hopeful signs. For example this segment in a story from NPR: (more…)

Summary of the Coverage of the Maize Genome here at J+TGC

Summarizing a couple of Virginia Walbot’s ten reasons you should care about the maize genome

Hear one of the lead authors of the maize genome paper explain how and why it was done in under four minutes.

Reviewing the quality of the genome sequence itself.

We can already see research made possible by the maize genome.

How maize fits in the family tree of grasses/grains

Read about how the maize genome project is helping researchers find more genes selected for during the domestication of maize.

Plants have more genes than people, why is this still news

Other people on the web react to the maize genome (also why different colors of corn are not different species)

Corn vs Maize

I use the words basically interchangeably on this site. I know it’s confusing and I at least attempt to pick one and use it all the way through a post (often without success, which I’ll catch, and wince at, days later). The problem is that naturally I use one word or the other depending on context.

The plant in question is studied internationally and while in America “corn” means those cool looking plants that you see me standing in front of one third of the time when you visit this blog, in british english the same word means any grain. I’ve never heard it explicitly said, but I assume the reason the geneticists who study the plant originally called it maize was to avoid confusion from those mixed definitions. It’s also possible “corn” was still considered a slang term back then, and not the sort of name a well educated scientist should be using regardless.

As a result of growing up in the midwest surrounded by corn and getting interested in comparative genomics by way of maize genetics, terms like “corn geneticist” and “corn genome” don’t sound right to my ear and ones like “maize plant” or “maize is selling for $5 a bushel” sound even worse. On the other hand, the sentence “Sequencing the maize genome is going to provide even more powerful tools to corn breeders” sounds fine, but I realize it can be confusing to people whose life experiences are different from my own.*

*An even weirder one: Back when I was still doing science that required writing with pen and paper instead of doing everything on the computer, without thinking about it I’d either cross my sevens or not depending on whether I was writing a number in a scientific context.

A crossed 7. Theoretically this is easier to distinguish from a 1, especially on tassel bags and row stakes that are going to be outside, exposed to the elements for months.

A crossed 7.

Theoretically a crossed 7 is easier to distinguish from a 1, especially on tassel bags and row stakes that are going to be outside, exposed to the elements for months. (And where a mistake has the potential to ruin a year or years of work. It’s not like maize geneticists can run down to Walmart and buy more seeds carrying the genotypes they’ve spent years putting together.)

The Domestication of Maize

Twenty thousand years ago, not a single crop species existed in its current form. Almost* every bite of food you eat today is the result huge amounts of human artificial selection, both unconsciously and intentionally by farmers and plant breeders. Sometimes the obvious changes are minor, for example between wild and domesticated strawberries:

Wild strawberry (left) and domesticated strawberry (right)

Wild strawberry (left) and domesticated strawberry (right)

Clearly one of the major traits early strawberry growers selected for was bigger fruits. Which makes sense since it takes about the same amount of time an effort to pick a strawberry either way, but if you’re picking the ones on the right you’ll have more pounds of fruit picked at the end of the day.

But even in this case, the similarity in form hides major changes at the genome left. Strawberries went through two whole genome duplications during domestication (looks like it’s more complicated than I made it sound see comments), so each of the cells in the strawberries on the right contain eight copies of each chromosome, while the strawberry on the left contains the more standard two copies of each chromosome.

On the other end of the spectrum is maize. (more…)