The Corn of the Future Is Hundreds of Years Old and Makes Its Own Mucus
August 25, 2018 8:08 AM   Subscribe

Corn has a complicated genetic history, and so far I can't find anything online that describes what this corn is. Perhaps no one knows yet.
posted by acrasis at 8:28 AM on August 25, 2018

Science writer Oliver Morton observed (or quoted someone observing, can't remember for sure) that the nitrogen cycle is the reverse of the carbon cycle. In the case of nitrogen we are taking something concentrated in the air, and dumping it into the soil where it is only present in trace quantities. In both cases there's a natural cycle that's in equilibrium, and in both cases humans are messing it up. It'd probably be the big environmental disaster if it weren't for the fact that global warming is so much bigger.

I don't see one more crop that has nitrogen fixing bacteria changing this, but maybe I'm missing something.
posted by mark k at 8:49 AM on August 25, 2018

Legumes, like beans and peas, house these nitrogen-fixing bacteria in their roots. But cereals, like corn and rice, largely don’t. That’s why American farmers need to apply more than 6.6 million tons of nitrogen to their corn crops every year, in the form of chemical sprays and manure.

“All that fertilizer takes a lot of energy to produce, and the excess ends up in places where it distorts the nutrient balance, creating algae blooms and dead zones in waterways,” says Jeremy Yoder, an evolutionary biologist at California State University, Northridge who was not involved in the study. “So self-fertilizing [corn] could substantially cut the cost and environmental impact of a staple crop.” It could also make it easier to grow the crop in developing countries where fertilizer is unaffordable or in areas where soils are poorer.
Or we could, y'know, just not plant these fucking ridiculous monocrops and interplant with legumes instead, just like indigenous farmers had been doing for thousands of fucking years before Big Agrochemical convinced us all that doing something obvious and cheap like that was no longer Modern Enough.

Corn is completely out of control in the US. It's a massively dominant crop that serves pretty much every end use it's been wedged into less well than virtually any alternative; the last thing the world needs is a way for the US to make more of the shit. Corn production could go down, and legume production go correspondingly up, and things would get better for everybody except fertilizer manufacturers.

Self feeding snot corn is cool and all, but the best thing that can be done with it, in my opinion, is not fuck with it. Just let those who have already found out what it's good for keep using it for that.
posted by flabdablet at 9:06 AM on August 25, 2018 [15 favorites]

I wonder whether Sierra Mixe is slow-growing *because* it's getting its nitrogen from the air. It still might be worth it to have slower growing corn and not have to use (as much?) fertilizer.
posted by Nancy Lebovitz at 9:30 AM on August 25, 2018 [1 favorite]

I wish I had something intelligent to contribute, but instead I can only say: why does that photo in the first link look like a plant-based, ectoplasm-soaked face-hugger?
posted by gwint at 9:46 AM on August 25, 2018

It certainly would have a role, but I doubt it would take over the world. There were attempts at inoculating nitrogen fixers into other cereals with modest success. Legumes pay a fair price (in carbon they've already fixed) to maintain and supply roots with nitrogen fixing bacteria and they still benefit from supplemental nitrogen (unless they are limited by something else, which often happens in practice). If it were cheap, every plant would do it. Evolutionarily there's something of a free-rider problem (if my neighbor species fix a bunch of N then I don't have to spend the energy to do so), so there's probably room for improvement. The N pollution would be much better, since exogenous N often washes away.
posted by a robot made out of meat at 10:24 AM on August 25, 2018 [2 favorites]

i too am indigenous and make my own mucus
posted by poffin boffin at 10:48 AM on August 25, 2018 [24 favorites]

But are you sixteen to twenty feet tall? I think not.
posted by flabdablet at 11:05 AM on August 25, 2018 [6 favorites]

how dare you
posted by poffin boffin at 12:12 PM on August 25, 2018 [5 favorites]

No need to get snotty.
posted by flabdablet at 12:14 PM on August 25, 2018 [2 favorites]

Are you 100 yet? You might still be growing.
posted by LarsC at 12:39 PM on August 25, 2018

'Sierra Mixe' is slow growing because it is a fucking mountain range.

This is cool, I am pretty sure I've eaten this corn.

I spent some time 15 years ago in Santa Maria Thahuitoltepec, in the Sierra Mixe. Tons of interesting stuff going on there.

I was focused on traditional Mixe wool dies, but we had a visiting enthnobotanist in and she cooked all kinds of native grain and vegetables. I remember the slimy corn plant.

We had a meal where the high school kids explained Mixe cosmology, and we had a volcano for lunch. shallow clay pot on hit coals with a volcano made of masa de nixtamal, the lava a very spicy and hot sauce, with shoots from different wild plants.
posted by Dr. Curare at 12:40 PM on August 25, 2018 [5 favorites]

Self feeding snot corn

“You may call it a wonderful example of symbiosis but I assure you, it's snot."
posted by Joe in Australia at 5:49 PM on August 25, 2018 [4 favorites]

Depending on how complex the biological pathway is, and how efficient (and a whole bunch of other factors like, does this enzyme require some rare ion as a cofactor, etc.), this could potentially be a tool to introduce via GMO into other species of crops for use in nitrogen-poor land.

If you plow the unharvested parts of the plant back into the soil, this could potentially remediate depleted bioavailable nitrogen for other crops.

There could be room to improve the efficiency of the enzyme through genetic engineering, too.

otoh, if the soil is depleted of bioavailable nitrogen, its probably deficient in a bunch of other nutrients, too, or have a lack-of-water problem.
posted by porpoise at 6:28 PM on August 25, 2018

It's linked in one of the above articles, but it's a little hard to find, so here's the academic paper: Nitrogen fixation in a landrace of maize is supported by a mucilage-associated diazotrophic microbiota.
posted by ragtag at 4:39 AM on August 26, 2018 [3 favorites]

You can think of this as a replacement for making N fertilizer with natural gas and then driving it all over the country and losing some fraction of it before it gets into a plant (often in damaging ways: nitrates in groundwater are bad for animals, e.g. us, and N2O in air is a powerful greenhouse gas). Ecological systems have *some* losses, of course, but I expect the corn plant to do a better job of timing its N subsidies/requests to meet its demands than humans could do.
posted by clew at 12:34 PM on August 26, 2018

more re: crossbreeding :P (bananas!)
Peeling Back the History of the Banana - "Banana domestication began some 7,000 years ago, but researchers are only now piecing together the global journey of the beloved yellow fruit."
posted by kliuless at 3:56 AM on August 28, 2018 [1 favorite]

Thanks, kliuless; SAPIENS looks like a fun site to follow.
posted by ragtag at 6:15 AM on August 28, 2018

I wish I could find any of the links I had earlier, but the last time I went into a rabbit hole reading about the nitrogen cycle it turned out that there exist plenty of food crops that use a six-carbon cycle or something similar instead. This results in slower growth, but is far more sustainable.

It's only recently that we as a species have pushed these plants against their nitrogen limits. In the wild, they'd never find themselves far from a source of nitrogen in the soil, similar to how we humans rarely find ourselves far from vitamin C.

It would be great if we managed to breed crops that simply used a different pathway to growth, and could put the Hauber process and all its pollution behind us.
posted by rum-soaked space hobo at 2:16 AM on August 29, 2018

You're probably thinking of C4 photosynthesis, rum-soaked? It handles water stress better than the more-common C3 photosynthesis, and is mostly found in sunny, moderately dry environments. Corn is a C4 plant. It's not otherwise particularly more sustainable, not that using less water isn't really important.

(There's also CAM photosynthesis, adapted to desert rather than prairie conditions. Although we do eat some food from CAM-capable plants, I'm told that the sugars we eat from them are not fixed by CAM because a plant in good enough conditions to produce fruit or sweetness is in good enough conditions to switch over to C3 or C4. CAM, C3 and C4 have different isotope signatures, which show up in (e.g.) the hair of people who have been living on different diets.)
posted by clew at 12:14 PM on August 29, 2018 [1 favorite]

« Older Please, let me use your bathroom right now...   |   Lindsay Kemp Newer »

This thread has been archived and is closed to new comments