Mutant Corn Could Be The Future Of Agriculture

In America, corn syrup is king, and real sugar hovers somewhere around prince status. We’re addicted to corn, and corn, in turn, is addicted to nitrogen. A long time ago, people figured out that by rotating crops, the soil will stay nutrient-rich, which helps to an extent by retaining nitrogen. Then we figured out how to make nitrogen fertilizer, and through its use we essentially doubled the average crop yield over the last hundred years or so.

The aerial roots of the Sierra Mixe corn stalk help the plant produce its own nitrogen. Image via Wikimedia Commons

Not all plants need extra nitrogen. Legumes like beans and soybeans are able to make their own. But corn definitely needs nitrogen. In the 1980s, the now-chief of agriculture for Mars, Inc. Howard-Yana Shapiro went to Mexico, corn capital of the world, looking for new kinds of corn. He found one in southern Mexico, in the Mixes District of Oaxaca. Not only was this corn taller than American corn by several feet, it somehow grew to these dizzying heights in terrible soil.

Shapiro thought the corn’s success might have something to do with the aerial, finger-like roots protruding from the cornstalk. Decades later, it turns out he was right. Researchers at UC Davis have proven that those aerial roots allow the plant to grab nitrogen out of the air through a symbiotic relationship with bacteria in that clear, syrupy mucus. The process is called nitrogen fixation.

Nitrogen Fixing is a Bit Broken

So if we already have nitrogen fertilizer, why even look for plants that do it themselves? The Haber-Bosch fertilizer-making process, which is an artificial form of nitrogen fixation, does make barren soil less of a factor. But that extra nitrogen in ammonia-based fertilizer tends to run off into nearby streams and lakes, making its use an environmental hazard. And the process of creating ammonia for fertilizer involves fossil fuels, uses a lot of energy, and produces greenhouse gases to boot. All in all, it’s a horrible thing to do to the environment for the sake of agriculture. But with so many people to feed, what else is there to do?

The Haber-Bosch process illustrated. Image via Wikimedia Commons

Over the last decade, the UC Davis researchers use DNA sequencing to determine that the mucus on the Sierra Mixe variety of the plant provides microbes to the corn, which give it both sugars to eat and a layer of protection from oxygen. They believe that the plants get 30-80% of their nitrogen this way. The researchers also proved that the microbes do in fact belong to nitrogen-fixing families and are similar to those found in legumes. Most impressively, they were able to transplant Sierra Mixe corn to both Davis, California and Madison, Wisconsin, and have it grow successfully, proving that the nitrogen-fixing trick isn’t limited to the corn’s home turf. Now they are working to identify the genes that produce the aerial roots.

One Step in a Longer Journey of Progress

We probably won’t be switching over to Sierra Mixe corn anytime soon, however. It takes eight months to mature, which is much too slow for American appetites used to a three-month maturation period. If we can figure out how to make other plants do their own nitrogen fixation, who knows how far we could go? It seems likely that more people would accept a superpower grafted from a corn cousin instead of trying to use CRISPR to grant self-nitrogen fixation, as studies have shown a distrust of genetically modified foods.

The issue of intellectual property rights could be a problem, but the researchers started on the right foot with the Mexican government by putting legal agreements in place that ensure the Sierra Mixe community benefits from research and possible commercialization. We can’t wait to see what they’re able to do. If they’re unable to transplant the power of self-fixation to other plants, then perhaps there’s hope for improving the Haber-Bosch process.

92 thoughts on “Mutant Corn Could Be The Future Of Agriculture

  1. I think that more consideration should be paid to sorghum cane. I think it is easier on the soil, makes a great-tasting syrup, and its strong fibers can be used as a filler for biodegradable laminates.

  2. “In America, corn syrup is king, and real sugar hovers somewhere around prince status. We’re addicted to corn, and corn, in turn, is addicted to nitrogen. ”

    It should be noted that Corn Syrup is king because of farm subsidies. Learn more here:

    Take away the subsidies (to the tune of $20B) and it is likely that many of the corn derivative products, like corn syrup, will wither.

    1. It should also be noted that sugar price supports play into this, heavily lobbied into place by the sugar industry – one family group in particular. This has driven a lot of sugar-based industries overseas (or to substitute high-fructose corn syrup into products like soft drinks) and is one of the reasons that your Sugar Frosted Flakes and other near-candy* are hecho en Mexico or anywhere that the ingredients are cheaper.

      *US Labeling rules require any product with more than 50% sugar content be labeled as candy, which is why most sugary cereals hover in the 45 – 49% range. Subway recently ran afoul of something similar as Ireland taxed their sandwich “bread” as cake, since it contains so much sugar.

    1. All praise to GMO’s. Let us leverage our scientific advancements to feed the world. Create corn that can harvest extra carbon from the air. Corn that can grow in barren wastelands feeding the hungry of the world.

      Let us not rely on the “organic” methods such as using radiation to blast corn seeds and hoping they randomly mutate into something useful. Let us be smarter, splice what we need from where we need and feed the world.

      So yes bigger is better when it comes to how big of a pile of food I can grow in a year. The only other problem is making sure I can get the food where it needs to go.

      1. Like you said the only problem is to get the food where it needs to go
        There already is enough food and wealth in the world, it´s just not evenly distributed because some have a way bigger hunger than others.

        1. I don’t think that’s the only problem.

          If I had 1 million pounds of dead chicken in Ohio it does nothing for people in sub Saharan Africa. It is simply to costly to get the chicken to them. So there are a few options.
          1. Reduce the cost of logistically transporting food across the world. – A lot of people would be happy to do this but it’s not as simple as flicking a switch.
          2. Increase the wealth of areas where chickens cannot be locally farmed to handle the price of transport. – Just make more money isn’t really a valid option.
          3. Make it so the food can be farmed locally. – GMO’s.

          Of the 3 options I see GMOs as the only option that we can practically implement in the near future. I reference golden rice as the perfect example of how GMO’s could improve countless lives but people with heads so far up the “it’s organic” *** would rather those people suffer.

          1. Fourth option: reduce the population. Preferably by education and improved healthcare, otherwise it will eventually happen in the traditional way.

          2. anon you do realize you can do organic (really “petro-chemical free”) and GMO at the same time, ask the Amish. Maybe it is not the certified organic, really the current crop of Genetically Added Pesticide / Genetically Added Herbicide Resistance GMOs really do nothing but give GMO technology a black eye and lead to things like the Bt-resistant corn borer and super-weeds.

            Note: I am not against GMOs just want better ones, for example add a fixed GULO to the willing population to eliminate scurvy in areas where it is common. Heck, I’d even be a test case for that one.

            “3. Make it so the food can be farmed locally. – GMO’s.”
            This has not worked out this way in practice thus far, Golden Rice is a modified rice that grows well where it was created, it barely grows at all where the Golden Rice itself was targeted.
            I am however interested in the electroporation / conventional breeding attempts at perennial wheat. I plan to explore electrofusion of eikorn and emmer wheat with Dactyloctenium aegyptium, then conventional breeding to improve traits.

          3. Philanthropy has become a 300 billion dollar business since the 70s which has destroyed rich farmland in Africa, Colombia, and India in the name of GMO. Which then led to mass suicides of farmers. And painful death of farmers from glyphosate in Thailand and America. And to your chicken comment, Factory farming is the number 1 cause of carbon emissions in the world, and thus cause of the impending climate crisis. Not hummers or airplanes. You can feed the world with grains and save the rainforest at the same time.

          4. I’ve done some pretty comprehensive research into the alleged drawbacks of GMO’s, and the only legitimate downside to them is that companies like Monsanto will sue farmers if seeds from GMO strain of crop blow into the farmers field. And that’s a corporate greed issue, not a problem with GMO’s. GMO’s have the potential to solve global hunger AND eliminate the need for pesticides, but people are too caught up in 5G-esque conspiracy theories.

        1. I have some Sierra Mixe, and plan to grow out next year.
          There are several issues, the kernels are much larger on Sierra Mixe than yellow dent #2 (typical field maize) so things like combine harvesters and other equipment needs adjusted to account for that.
          Also the Sierra Mixe looks to be a more flour-type of maize, when the collective we would want it also in things like popcorn and sweetcorn types of varieties, if you are actually planning on direct human consumption. Sierra Mixe is also very long season, so growing in places like the US corn belt are not readily possible without transplanting from greenhouse, which nobody is setup to perform at the scales of the current maize growers.

        2. Because the growing season here in Southern Minnesota is too short for the 9 month maturity of Sierra Mixe. (as mentioned in the article)
          The corn/maize would die of frost long before it would mature.

    2. Corn can also struggle to grow to maturity in short-season climates and poor soil – it’s what is known as a ‘heavy feeder’, often requiring a lot of fertilizing. Natives planted legumes among them for good reason. If we could develop ways for plants to glean more necessary materials from the air and soil, we wouldn’t have to continue to contaminate our own environment so badly.

      Besides (without reading the article fully) we could eventually cross-breed this trait into commercial corn gene pools with enough effort. We’re just using a ‘copy and paste’ utility to do it more efficiently.

      Anyone can play with genetics of food crops. Just plant some popcorn next to your sweet corn or spawn some mushrooms from spores.

    3. With respect, you’re missing the point to an extent that suggests that you skipped everything after the first paragraph. In common with most Europeans I think it’s fair to poke fun at the typical overweight American, but the whole point here is that a corn variety that can derive some proportion of the nitrogen it needs directly from the atmosphere is very good news: particularly if the stalks and leaves are ploughed back into the ground after harvest rather than being shipped to a power station.

      1. You’re still going to find a lot of farmers who will “no till” and still remove the leaves and stalks from the field purely for residue management. It seems like the use of stover as biomass is largely dying out with the majority of stover bales going to feed filler or bedding.

      2. With respect, my point is more along the lines of we shouldn’t be so easy with “oh hey that corn over there does what we want here, so lets plant it here and crossbreed it with this and that”

        Long winded story short, nature knows what its doing, while we are just literally grasping at straws, watch how 5-10 years from now we decide that this specific corn is actually bad for you, because “oops” it wasn’t made for the climate or soil or other additives used.

    4. Did you read the article. The corn is naturally that tall, it does not need fertilizer. We want to splice it’s no fertilizer needed dna into corn that is ripe in 3 months not 8. That’s almost a third the time, no way it’s going to grow that high in that time.

      1. I did read it and what you are describing is pretty much the exact issue, combining ‘different versions’ and making assumptions about the results, watch how 5 years from now they discover that this engineered combination of corns is actually bad for you.

        There is a reason the US isnt allowed to export most of their foods/crops, my 2 cents: just roll with the corn you have now, dont try one up nature, that usually doesn’t work out too well.

        1. Unless you live on some sort of restrictive nomadic diet untouched by modern crops, your comments betray your complete cluelessness in this matter. The overwhelming majority of the fruit & vegetables that modern society consumes have been cross-cultivated, engineered, and grown well outside of their once native habitats, and bear very little resemblance to their wild “natural” origins.

          The agrobusiness has its sins to answer for, however I’m fed up of people spouting this uninformed anti-science claptrap. It’s just as harmful to society & the environment as agribusiness’ own abuses.

      1. Roundup is getting banned in more and more US states & European countries and the European Union will actually completely ban “glyphosate” starting in 2022 (main ingredient in Roundup and the most used pesticide in the US) because its known to kill human cells just as easily as what we consider ‘pests’

  3. Mutant corn is also the present of agriculture – corn as any living human knows it is a human-engineered “frankenfood,” done long before anyone knew what DNA looked like. Natural corn is just a slightly tall grass with just a few kernels on it, and over the millennia, humans bred it into this mighty stalk with a cob bristling with hundreds of kernels.

    See also: Agricultural vs natural tomatoes, eggplants (they actually used to look like small bird eggs)

  4. I’m the experimenter in the “Improve the Haber-Bosch process” project (over on .io) indirectly linked in the article.

    Haber-Bosch is wildly energy intensive, and accounts for 5% of the world’s energy production. This has been known for decades, but as yet all attempts at improving the process have failed. It’s a very difficult problem that many people have looked at.

    (Lots of papers exist that ‘kinda imply that the problem has been solved, but the solution is either not scalable, or requires much more energy than existing methods, or the setup (vessels, catalysts, &c) are used/destroyed in the process.)

    I’m still actively experimenting to improve the process, just not updating an io project with results. Currently trying to reproduce an obscure electrochemical decomposition effect that I’m hoping can be leveraged/modified to apply to nitrogen fixation.

    I’m currently thinking that a system that fixates nitrogen and uses more energy than Haber-Bosch would still be useful *IF* such a system didn’t need the enormous chemical plant that Haber-Bosch needs for economies of scale. There are lots of stranded energy sources around, such as solar panels or wind turbines that produce energy when no one wants it, and small nitrogen fixation units could be started and stopped with relative ease, to take up the excess energy and make a saleable product. Nitrates could be made locally and save the shipping costs from one of the (seven, IIRC) factories around the world.

    I personally don’t think fertilizer runoff will be a problem in a couple of decades. It looks like indoor LED farming is the future of the industry, where an indoor system doesn’t have to worry as much about climate or insects or fertilizer. You can have a closed or semi-closed system that repurposes the fertilizer in runoff. Also, you can distill CO2 from the atmosphere to make the plants grow faster indoors, and capture some atmospheric CO2 at the same time.

    (Plant photosynthesis is 2% efficient, solar panels are roughly 20% efficient, there’s some % loss from power distribution and conversion to LED light, but overall you can grow more plants with LED light than you can with sunlight. Factor in the efficiency of doing things indoors and local production, and it looks like LED farming will be a clear winner in the future.)

    1. It is frankly ridiculous to believe that indoor farming is the ideal solution to provide food staples. It is this particular brand of naivite that got humans into this problem. We already have the tools to feed people without destroying the environment. It’s humanity’s lack of forsight and unwillingness to change that is going to end the species. Lets try asking plant scientists, ecologists, registered dietitian nutritionists, and sociologists about this problem instead of chemists and engineers. We need to fundamentally change the way we eat and live. There is no solution in which we maintain the cultural status quo and thrive as a species. We’ve already proved it to be unsustainable.

      1. What I posted was an opinion, and I stand by it. I also posted some numbers and analysis

        …which you were too lazy to do.

        Standing on the street corner shouting “workers of the world, unite!” is all well and good, and there’s a need for that sort of thing occasionally, but

        …in general the people who do that are not the ones who roll up their sleeves and actually work to fix a problem.

        Feel free to rant, but I strongly suspect ranting won’t change a thing.

        1. Properly managing soil health and using precision agricultural techniques to increase water and nitrogen use efficiencies as well as to reduce runoff are closer to the engineered answer than increasing the efficiency of the synthesis of fertilizers or the logistics involved in transporting them. The synthetic production of ammonium nitrate only accounts for 1-2% of the world’s energy production and 3-5% of the world’s natural gas production yet is responsible for a 400% increase in food production in the last century without increasing land use. I’d say that’s a pretty fair trade. Now we just need to use it even more wisely to prevent it from disrupting crucial environmental cycles.

          Changing what and how we eat benefits human health and reduces environmental pollution more than any technological advancement possible. It’s just not as sexy because it involves societal change.

      2. I’m sorry, but I disagree violently with most of what you write. Sociologists and their ilk are a bunch of freeloading poseurs who will have their backs against the wall come the revolution- or at least will be required to demonstrate that they can actually do something useful in return for food and shelter. What PWalsh (and other workers) is attempting is important: fertilizer production takes a ridiculous amount of energy and raw material (natural gas etc.) and is responsible for a substantial environmental release of “greenhouse gasses” and other things which these days are recognised as pollutants.

        I know that I’ve criticised his speculation that much food production could be done in indoor facilities, but what he’s attempting is praiseworthy: the only alternative is to revert to traditional husbandry (if one is allowed to use such a word these days) which could only feed a fraction of the World’s current population.

        But at the same time continued reliance on technical advances to support a constantly-growing population, which collectively appears to have very little understanding of the grave it’s digging for itself (I’m pointing a finger at you, Mr. President), can only end one way: badly. On that we agree.

    2. It’s all very well talking about indoor agriculture, but have you stopped to compare the relative areas of the World which are used to grow food and that covered by buildings? We quite simply don’t have the industrial capability of building the facilities required, probably don’t have access to sufficient ore etc., and even if we did the energy demand to extract and refine it would dwarf the savings achieved by improved efficiency.

      1. Comparing areas does not give the right idea, as indoor growing can be done in multiple layers. But I also find it unlikely that indoor growing would be the right solution for all areas – it still could be the right solution for some areas, though.

        1. That raises an interesting engineering issue: does a building with multiple floors (or in this case multiple tiers of plants) use more structural material or less?

          I’d suggest (without being a structural engineer) that it invariably takes more or at least requires a higher grade of steel etc., and while I can’t back that up with theory I’d point out that tall buildings are usually built either where land is expensive (New York, London) or where there is a strong incentive to minimise workflow paths. Where land is cheap (semi-desert USA) factories and datacentres tend to spread out at ground level.

    1. I asked my nephew about this, he’s a farmer. By and large the trash gets plowed back into the field, and reduces the amount of fertilizer needed next year.

      This is why biomass processing of unused farming products isn’t a big industry – taking the biomass out of the field means the farmer has to buy more fertilizer. They have to plow the field anyway, so unless it’s something harvested and separated out later, it’s not a good fit for business.

      Biomass “trash” isn’t really a problem for farming, although you might make a case for the yield volume or yield mass of the larger crops.

      1. I have been watching YouTube videos on regenerative farming . Amazing how much damage the application of all these manmade fertilizers have damaged the soil and what it takes to repair this damage .I am going to get a lot of flack for saying it but I think we should be rephrasing the question

        1. biomass needs to stay where it is, not be burned to make artificial fertilizer…as stated in a different comment, photosynthesis is terribly inefficient, leave it for food or natural fertilizer and use ammonia for chemicals that can’t be made naturally.

        2. Nitrogen-fixing bacteria are generally inefficient and very slow. They live in symbiosis with other plants (in small nodules on the roots of beans, specifically), so just “innoculating” biomass is not feasible currently.

          But it’s an interesting idea that may not have been explored. If someone could develop a fungus (for example) with nitrogen-fixation nodules similar to beans it might be possible to reclaim biomass and generate high-nitrogen soil.

          Perhaps some of the HAD genetic hackers should look into this?

  5. There was a report on this being found in Mexico / South America, and the local farmers worried that US agribusiness would ‘steal’ it, patent it, and then force the farmers that had it to pay for the privilege to grow a crop they had had ‘free’ from mother nature .

      1. I’d suggest that there’s sufficient precedent to make it very much the case. A US patent could very easily cover all cultivars that incorporated the genes that made them a congenial environment for the nitrogen-fixing bacteria being considered, and- innocently or otherwise- fail to specify that the genes had to be spliced in artificially. And then the patent owner could lean on seed merchants etc. to refuse to deal with anybody who was growing a traditional variety from saved seed.

        I must admit that I find the Monsanto connection personally embarrassing. They were one of the biggest local employers where I was brought up, and despite- by today’s standards- being responsible for persistent pollution and a totally unacceptable stench were generally considered to be a good employer.

  6. First the attack of the killer tomatoes, now the attack in the Midwest heartland of giant corn with it’s slime covered fingers strangulating and choking victims and lobbing cobs at cars and power lines.

      1. Thats funny because in Europe we grow “mais” and its very similar to American corn but without all the cancerous additives, that ~20% of corn the US exports? it literally goes to third world countries (poor guys) and live stock

  7. I for one welcome our new corn overlords. But it seems to me that it’s the bacteria in the corn are doing the work of nitrogen fixation, the corn is just providing a sweet snot for them to live in, so why don’t we just see if we can grow the bacteria in an artificial sweet snot and use the nitrogen produced to fertilizer any crops we want?

  8. Yeah, looking forward to another monoculture using patented GMO infertile strain to push on small farmer so they no longer can keep grain to sow next year harvest. Perfect to make more heirloom strain extinct too. Funny that we get excited about finding that mexican strain considering all those monocultures are responsible for making them go extinct in the first place.

    1. Corn has a lot of uses, besides people food. But, we can expect a huge demand for ethanol and bio-diesel in the near future. Electricity from solar panels and windmills, just isn’t going to replace fossil fuels alone, not to mention both take up a lot of acreage to farm. Transporting electricity over wires is still losey, and wires get damaged.

      Farmers can only squeeze so many stalks per acre, so going tall is going to improve profits. This will, of course force all the farmers to go tall, or find a different crop, which might not produce the same demand driven profits of corn.

      Really don’t understand the GMO resistance. It’s really not too different from some of the weird stuff we’ve done genetically. Actually a little better controlled than mutating, and see what survives methods. Why not use genetic, to reduce chemical use, to produce food? It’s more than fertilizers and insecticides, that can be reduced.

      1. But for some reason, the plants modified with GMO methods get patented and controlled much more severely than traditionally cultivated crops. Nothing wrong with the methods IMO, but the intellectual property laws need to be fixed.

      2. solar panel – 20% efficiency
        photosynthesis – 2% (and making bioethanol is far from 100% efficient, so that 2% get’s badly butchered even further)
        We can’t eat electricity (bummer…), but we can use it to power our transport infrastructure, using food to make fuel is dumb.

        The problem with GMOs is the patents and their abuse by scumbags like Monsanto.

      3. Corn is crap for biodiesel any way, look into the ABE process. Do in two stages, first concentrating on butyric acid production. Doing that the gasoline substitute / additive B in the ABE goes up a bit and does not need to use corn or other high value feedstock. The California rice straw being a better feedstock for the process and better for California’s air than burning it.

  9. “according to the USDA”, the average American consumes 1500 lbs of a corn [products] /year… plane corn, ground,grilled, bread, and all the animals fed corn, hogs,steers,chickens, goats, fish farms, and who can forget ethanol,, gasoline additive , and last but not least BOURBON!!

    1. Its downright rude how half the comments start crying that people didnt read the article & how f-ing with nature is totally normal, im sorry to tell you that most people infact have read the article, they just disagree with that view and dont want to blindly follow the health and safety organization of the nation with the most unhealthy food in the entire world, and no, thats not even a reference to the fat contents..

      For example going with your counter point, nobody actually needs fertilizer / pesticides / etc, all you need is knowhow on the enemy of your enemy (read: you need to know what insects to introduce to crops to have them not be eaten by other insects) but this whole idea seems completely lost on the US, and instead they throw pesticide on everything, and thats just one of a few dozen differences between the US and the rest of the world. Result: the US isnt allowed to export like 95% of their crops/foods because none of it meets health standards of other nations/countries.

      Why do Americans always assume they know best? Not trying to be a douchebag here but it would be nice if more Americans could simply spend a few minutes in Google to confirm or debunk their assumptions before posting them, i mean, Google is American, dont you like America?! ;)

  10. The omnivores dilema by michael pollan is a good book that goes into everything about corn and how it got to be what it is today. In general, there are alot of problems already caused by previous efficiency gains and decent overall intentions. Tech is always a double edged sword, and human nature / capitalism seems to like to flail said sword without much regard on the long term, broad reaching, consequences.

    Maybe the right way to say it is that sometimes engineering something to be better by definition will make something else worse.

  11. I have been growing my own strain of corn for about 8 yrs. I started with multi-color corn (mostly white/yellow). I have been selectively breeding it to produce a almost blackish-purple grain. This year I got about a 90% desired, 5% rootbeer/ pumpkin color ( I froze the kernals may try to purify this color later), 5% white/ yellow yield. Hoping to get 100 black/purple in a yr or 2. also working on ear length. Doing it just to see if I can, just for fun.

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