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Thanksgiving Corn: How Genetic Modifications Produced Yellow, Green and Blue Varieties

Nov 25, 2015 06:36 PM EST
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Have you ever wondered what was on the menu for the first Thanksgiving feast in 1621? When the Pilgrims and Wampanoag Indians gathered at Plymouth to celebrate the autumn harvest, you can be sure there was a plethora of wild game and locally grown vegetables -- especially corn, which was a staple grain in the area at the time.

While many are familiar with sweet corn on the cob that has yellow-to-white kernels and is sold at the supermarket today, or the popped, fluffy version that is the perfect treat to accompany any movie -- especially lathered in butter -- the corn grown in 1621 was definitely very different. For starters, the corn served at the first Thanksgiving would have most likely been removed from the ear, ground into cornmeal, boiled, and then turned into porridge that was occasionally sweetened with molasses. So what other varieties have sprouted over the years?

While some corn is long and skinny, others have brightly colored red, green or blue kernels. No mater the shape, color, or texture, the crops' genetic diversity ultimately reflects the reason for growing it and the environments in which it is grown. For example, sweet corn is given its flavor because it has specific genes that prevent the seeds from converting sugars into starches. Therefore, this corn is grown for human consumption and harvested when immature, during what is called the "milk stage," so that it can be enjoyed as a tasty vegetable, rather than being left to dry out and used as a grain. That's where varieties known as Hickory King and Longfellow Flint come in -- they are also grown for human consumption, but not for us to sink our teeth into the cob. Instead, this corn is used as a grain and ground into cornmeal.

On the other hand, some corn -- dent or field corn for example -- is specifically grown for animal consumption because it gives their feed an extra nutritional boost. Dent corn is named for its apparent dent or dimple that forms in the top of each kernel as it begins drying out. Compared to sweet corn, it is higher in starch and lower in sugar content. Additionally, dent corn is used for making corn syrup, biodegradable plastics and fuel.

Some colorful, more exotic varieties of corn include Oaxacan Green corn, which is used by Zapotec people to make green flour tamales in Mexico; Acoma Pueblo corn, which is characterized by mixed blue, red and white kernels; and blue corn, which was grown by Native Americans and used as staple in many cultural traditions. In the latter variety, blue kernels are produced from pigments in the seeds called anthocyanins.

Following humans' domestication of corn, the original wild form went extinct. However, the corn plant's variability ultimately allowed for the cross-breeding and hybridization of numerous varieties. In fact, most corn varieties grown in the U.S. today are considered hybrids and made by crossing two different strains to produce plants with some qualities from each plant. Farmers have used such genetic mutations to their advantage when trying to create the perfectly sized, colored and most disease-resistant version of corn that will ripen in ideal time.

So as you pass the bowl of corn around the dining room table, think about how traditions and agriculture practices, have changed since the first Thanksgiving feast. 

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