Genetics Has Come a Long Way!

A modern marvel - in less than one century.

Published on: May 17, 2010

Last summer my dad and mom sold their home and had an auction. From the back shed we pulled out a half dozen 'corn drier's mom had kept form her dad. Having no use for them, we let them sell. A friend bought them. Then at Christmas, he brought one back to mom with a sack of ear corn so she could watch squirrels outside the window.

I'm not sure about the squirrels, but the blue Jays had a field day eating corn off an antique corn drier. It consist of a steel rod, with more slender wire rods about six inches long extending off like branches on a tree. It's made so you can stick about a dozen ears of corn on it, inserting the cob into the wire rod, and then hang it up. The original purpose wasn't to feed blue jays or squirrels. It was to let ears of corn that you had selected to plant next season dry out. Those were the days of open-pollinated corn, and this was a tool of the 'farmer corn breeder.'

Hybrid corn put an end to that in the 1930s. Double crosses gave way to single crosses. Then plant breeders started selecting better genetics and selecting for disease tolerance. Yields soared.

Fast forward dot the1990s. Biotech researchers figured out how to put genes from other organisms into corn plants that would give the plant certain characteristics, like the ability to fight off specific insects. Like those old corn driers, the fist Bt hybrids were crude by today's standards. They weren't 100% effective, but they were the forerunners of what was to come.

What came is an eight-gene, quad trait hybrid called SmartStax sold today by Monsanto and Dow AgroSciences. The concept is so new that Monsanto is asking certain farmers who planted it this year to let other farmers follow the progress on Facebook, another 21st century phenomenon.

Then just recently comes the announcement that Pioneer will sell seed that contains refuge in a bag. At least it's close to that - you still need refuge acres as it turns out for corn borer, but not for rootworm. Instead, 10% of the seed in the bag is the same genetics without the rootworm trait. It's all part of a plan to delay how quickly insects develop resistance to these Bt traits. For as much as man tries, insects always find a way around the new mouse trap.

Refuge in a bag, possibly realistic by next season, is a far cry from steel-rod corn driers to hold the best ears of corn to be planted the next spring. The corn driers belong in museums. How long before the first gene gun that scientists used to make Bt hybrids will be in a museum. Some say we're already light years past that technology.

One thing is certain. The corn you plant tomorrow wont be what you plant today, as advanced as today's hybrids are. Stay tuned to become part of the next chapter in the saga of corn.