Monster corn!

This summer will be my 4th year growing corn for my research. Every year, I’ve seen some crazy things in the transgenic and non-transgenic fields alike. For example:

On the left is “tassel ear”, where silks and kernels (female, seed producing plant parts) appear on the tassel (male, pollen producing plant parts), where they are most certainly NOT supposed to be – it’s ok for sorghum and other grasses, but not for corn! On the right, there are at least 2 ears where there should be one, and those leaves poking out between the two might be more ears. Neither of these plants are transgenic or carry heritable mutations that cause these strange phenotypes. Both transgenic and non-transgenic fields are treated with a herbicide before we plant but after that the plants are grown with no additives, chemical or otherwise.
So, what the heck is going on?
I’ve always meant to look it up, but pollination season is so busy, and then it’s harvest season which is so busy, and then we’re analyzing the seeds… you get the idea.
While looking for pictures of corn borer damage, I found an awesome site by Peter Thomison and Allen Geyer of the Horticulture and Crop Science Department of Ohio State University: Troubleshooting Abnormal Corn Ears and Related Disorders (pdf, also available in Spanish).
They say that tassel ear is due to a variety of causes, including mechanical injury due to hail, which we did have pretty badly last year. No one really knows what causes “bouquet ear” with multiple ears appearing where there should be one, but it might be due to temperature stress due to cold.
There are many other common but strange corn phenotypes explained on their site. Check it out!

Anastasia Bodnar

Written by Anastasia Bodnar

Anastasia Bodnar serves as the Policy Director of Biology Fortified, Inc. She is a science communicator and multidisciplinary risk analyst with a career in federal service. She has a PhD in plant genetics and sustainable agriculture from Iowa State University.

One comment

  1. This is really good to know, not just for those like myself who work on corn. 🙂 There are all kinds of interesting things going on biologically with our food – and the prevailing myth seems to be that if it looks any different from what people are used to, it must be some sort of dangerous genetic engineering thing going on. I know I have seen some traits such as multiple ears from one node (like on the right) that are heritable, and sometimes show up in hybrids of parents that do not display it. I’ve seen tassels produce seeds, and ears turn into tassels inside the husk. None of this is genetic engineering, yet GE is being used to scare people away from, essentially, basic genetics. It is also nice to know that some of these changes can come about from environmental factors

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