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Discovery: Ancient mutation led to modern corn

Discovery: Ancient mutation led to modern corn
[audio:|titles=John Doebley corn gene mutation]

A tiny mutation 20,000 years ago discovered recently by geneticist John Doebley helped produce the corn plant we know today.

John Doebley, corn geneticist
Department of Genetics
UW-Madison of College of Agricultural and Life Sciences
(608) 265-5803, (608) 265-5804

3:14 – Total Time

0:19 – What happened 20,000 years ago
0:41 – The first farmers
1:10 – How native farmers explained what happened
1:33 – Value of the discovery
2:13 – Stronger corn stalks, bigger ears, more protein
3:04 – Lead out

For more information on the jumping gene click:


Twenty thousand years ago, a gene makes a jump, and we have the modern corn plant. Were visiting today with John Doebley, Department of Genetics, University of Wisconsin, in the College of Agricultural and Life Sciences, Madison, Wisconsin and I’m Sevie Kenyon.

Sevie Kenyon: John, welcome to our microphone. Tell us what happened 20 thousand years ago.

John Doebley: A type of gene we call a jumping gene, existed in the ancestor of modern corn, and this gene changed its location. Basically, it came out of one chromosome and jumped into another chromosome, and where it jumped into the second chromosome, it actually improved the wild plant to make it more like modern corn.

Sevie Kenyon: What happened then?

John Doebley: About 15, or maybe 18 thousand years ago, people began to come to the Americas, and when they started farming, what they must have noticed is that some of the plants were a little bit better then others. The plants with the “jumping gene” would have had fewer stalks and a larger ear. And, they probably noticed those particular plants, and they saved the seeds of those particular plants, for their crop the following year.

Sevie Kenyon: And John, do you have a sense of how they may have explained this phenomena?

John Doebley: There’s an interesting story from the Hopi Indians, and they actually believe that the seed could be used like a message to the God. And, for the Hopi, the God’s lived in the Earth. And so if they put a seed of a particular type of plant into the ground, the Gods would understand that that’s the type of plant they wanted back and would have that sort of plant grow. And so the Hopi explained it by seeing the seed as a message to their Gods.

Sevie Kenyon: Can you give us an idea of how this discovery of this particular “jumping gene” may be used?

John Doebley: I know that people at the plant breeding companies pay attention to the type of work that’s done in my laboratory, and other labs that do work similar to mine, and that this influences them. In their private companies, they will work with this gene, they’ll make use of the discoveries that we have made. And then another way that it contributes is that the students in my lab, who work on these projects, often find jobs with these companies.

Sevie Kenyon: Speculate how these discoveries may affect the modern corn plant today.

John Doebley: Well, what we learned about this “jumping gene” is that when it moved into a second gene, I’ll call it the “stalk gene” it made stronger stalks and it made ears with larger kernels. And the way it did that is to make the stalk gene get “turned on” at a higher level. And so, the people in plant breeding industry today, may decide to see if they can maybe turn the stalk gene up to even a higher level and make even a larger ear or a stronger stalk. And other ways…they may look at that “jumping gene” and think about putting it into other genes that they would like to turn on at a higher level. So, take that “jumping gene” and stick that into a gene that, for say… the amount of protein in the seed, and see if you can then use that jumping gene to improve the amount of protein in a corn seed.

Sevie Kenyon: We’ve been visiting today with John Doebley, Department of Genetics, University of Wisconsin, in the College of Agricultural and Life Sciences, Madison, Wisconsin and I’m Sevie Kenyon.