The Mysterious Origin of Corn

by Carol A Westbrook

Modern corn (maize)

The new research technician walked into my lab at the University of Chicago, and I introduced her to my research group.

“I enjoyed the walk from home to the lab,” she added. “Everyone in Hyde Park is so friendly! Why just today I stopped to talk to a gardener. He proceeded to tell me about the corn plants he was cultivating. He showed me how he pollinates the plants by hand, and he began to discuss the complicated genetics of corn. “Honestly, Hyde Park is a very impressive place to live. Even the gardeners are highly educated!”

Everyone laughed. “Looks like you came across George Beadle,” someone said. “He’s a Nobel laureate and former president of the University. He’s now retired and doing the research that he always wanted—to determine the origin of the corn plant using genetics.” He likes nothing more than to discuss his theories with anyone who walks by, and spends his day working in his beloved corn fields, where he is doing his research on corn plants.”

This is a true story. George Beadle won the Nobel prize in 1958 for his genetic work on the mold Neurospora, which led to the “one gene-one enzyme” theory, a true breakthrough in understanding the function of DNA. But Nobel prize or no Nobel prize, Beadle’s real passion was the work he started while a graduate student at Cornell University, and that is to solve the mystery of corn’s origin. Read more »