The Past, Present, and Future of Corn

In 2015, the United Nations adopted the Agenda for Sustainable Development to guide global efforts through 2030. A large part of the agenda focuses on investment in agriculture as a key tool to end poverty and hunger, which result in sustainable development and can help address climate change. As a world-renowned botanical institution, the Missouri Botanical Garden is not only leading the efforts to ensure plants play a role in achieving the agenda’s goals but also continuing its longstanding tradition in ethnobotany and preserving plant diversity.

In 2016, the Garden received an assortment of seeds, but they weren’t just any seeds. There are 53 accessions in the collection, possibly one of the largest in the country, of a wild ancestor of modern corn called teosinte. It was given to the Garden by Dr. Mary Eubanks, a retired biology professor at Duke University who has worked with corn extensively. “My goal for the collection is that the seed be available for education and research, especially since some of the accessions are no longer available from the USDA [U.S. Department of Agriculture] or CIMMYT [International Maize and Wheat Improvement Center],” she wrote in an email to Andrew Wyatt, Vice President of Horticulture and Living Collections.

Teosinte, a wild ancestor of modern corn, looks very different from the corn kernels we know today, but the two are genetically similar.

The new collection is important because it allows the Garden to preserve the genetic material that is key to corn research and supports the long-term conservation of crop wild relatives. It now lives in the Garden’s Seed Bank at Shaw Nature Reserve, where it is stored in freezers to maintain its viability. “The associated data that came with this collection is very detailed. It has directions to the site exactly where it was collected,” says Rebecca Sucher, Living Collections Manager. “It’s really important that we know exactly where it came from and what genetic entity it represents.”

Considering that only three crop species—rice, maize, and wheat—account for more than 60% of the daily crop caloric intake by people around the world, having access to the genetic diversity of corn has significant implications both for research and education. “This collection provides the evolutionary context through which specimens can be compared to the domesticated crop we know today,” says Dr. Allison Miller, Associate Professor of Biology at Saint Louis University and Research Associate at the Garden. “In addition to that, botanical gardens also provide a great bridge for people to think about the food we eat, where it comes from, and how it’s grown. Corn is a great place to start.”

The Garden has a long history with corn. It can be traced back to Dr. Edgar Anderson, who was Director of the Garden in the 1950s and is considered the Garden’s first ethnobotanist. His interest in corn led to many publications on the subject, including several with Dr. William L. Brown. Together, they published the monographs on the two maize types that, when hybridized, gave rise to the Corn Belt Dent race that is the foundation for all hybrid corn today. “In essence, most of what is grown in the United States nowadays and in large parts of the globe goes back to William Brown and can be tied back in some way to the history of the Missouri Botanical Garden,” says Dr. Rainer Bussmann, former Director of the Garden’s William L. Brown Center.

The new living collection of teosinte complements a historical collection of corn in the Garden’s Herbarium. The Edgar Anderson Maize Collection includes some 6,000 ears that represent the Americas, Africa, and Eurasia. In addition to these collections, the Garden’s Peter H. Raven Library contains extensive literature, some of which dates back to the mid-16th century, on the origins, evolution, and historical uses of corn. “We now have a complete documentation, you could say, from the seed to the plant,” says Dr. Bussmann, “and this is what makes the Garden such an important repository.”

Monsanto Center_Robin Powell
The corn tassel collection in the Garden’s Herbarium represents the second half of the historical Edgar Anderson maize collection.

So when Dr. Eubanks decided to give her collection to the Garden, there was a very good reason to do so. “Very few institutions have such a strong taxonomic background, the ethnobotanic expertise, the necessary resources and tools like our seed bank and genetics lab, and the horticulture knowledge as the Garden does,” says Dr. James Miller, Senior Vice President of Science and Conservation. “We’re thrilled Dr. Eubanks saw that as well when looking for a place for her valuable collection.”


Andrea Androuais, Content Managing Editor

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