Maize (Zea mays L. ssp. mays, pronounced /ˈmeɪz/; also known in many English-speaking countries as corn), is a grass domesticated by indigenous peoples in Mesoamerica in prehistoric times. The Aztecs and Mayans cultivated it in numerous varieties throughout central and southern Mexico, to cook or grind in a process called Nixtamalization. Later the crop spread through much of the Americas. Between 1250 A.D. and 1700 A.D. nearly the whole continent had gained access to the crop. Any significant or dense populations in the region developed a great trade network based on surplus and varieties of maize crops. After European contact with the Americas in the late 15th and early 16th centuries, explorers and traders carried maize back to Europe and introduced it to other countries through trade. Its ability to grow in distinct climates, and its use were highly valued, thus spreading to the rest of the world.
Maize is the most widely grown crop in the Americas (332 million metric tons annually in the United States alone). Hybrid maize, because of its high-grain yield as a result of heterosis ('hybrid vigor'), is preferred by farmers over conventional varieties. While some maize varieties grow up to 7 metres (23 ft) tall, most commercially grown maize has been bred for a standardized height of 2.5 metres (8.2 ft). Sweet corn is usually shorter than field-corn varieties.
The term maize derives from the Spanish form of the indigenous Taino word maiz for the plant. This was the term used in the United Kingdom and Ireland, where it is now usually called "sweet corn", the most common form of the plant known to people there.
Outside the British Isles, another common term for maize is "corn". This was originally the English term for any cereal crop. In North America, its meaning has been restricted since the 19th century to maize, as it was shortened from "Indian corn." The term Indian corn now refers specifically to multi-colored "field corn" (flint corn) cultivars.
In scientific and formal usage, "maize" is normally used in a global context. Equally, in bulk-trading contexts, "corn" is used most frequently. In the UK, Australia and other English-speaking countries, the word "corn" is often used in culinary contexts, particularly in naming products such as popcorn and corn flakes. "Maize" is used in agricultural and scientific references.
Structure and physiology
Maize stems superficially resemble bamboo canes and the internodes can reach 20–30 centimetres (8–12 in). Maize has a distinct growth form; the lower leaves being like broad flags, 50–100 centimetres long and 5–10 centimetres wide (2–4 ft by 2–4 in); the stems are erect, conventionally 2–3 metres (7–10 ft) in height, with many nodes, casting off flag-leaves at every node. Under these leaves and close to the stem grow the ears. They grow about 3 millimetres a day.
The ears are female inflorescences, tightly covered over by several layers of leaves, and so closed-in by them to the stem that they do not show themselves easily until the emergence of the pale yellow silks from the leaf whorl at the end of the ear. The silks are elongated stigmas that look like tufts of hair, at first green, and later red or yellow. Plantings for silage are even denser, and achieve a lower percentage of ears and more plant matter. Certain varieties of maize have been bred to produce many additional developed ears. These are the source of the "baby corn" used as a vegetable in Asian cuisine.
Maize is a facultative long-night plant and flowers in a certain number of growing degree days > 50 °F (10 °C) in the environment to which it is adapted. The magnitude of the influence that long nights have on the number of days that must pass before maize flowers is genetically prescribed and regulated by the phytochrome system. Photoperiodicity can be eccentric in tropical cultivars, while the long days characteristic of higher latitudes allow the plants to grow so tall that they do not have enough time to produce seed before being killed by frost. These attributes, however, may prove useful in using tropical maize for biofuels.
The apex of the stem ends in the tassel, an inflorescence of male flowers. When the tassel is mature and conditions are suitably warm and dry, anthers on the tassel dehisce and release pollen. Maize pollen is anemophilous (dispersed by wind) and because of its large settling velocity most pollen falls within a few meters of the tassel. Each silk may become pollinated to produce one kernel of maize. Young ears can be consumed raw, with the cob and silk, but as the plant matures (usually during the summer months) the cob becomes tougher and the silk dries to inedibility. By the end of the growing season, the kernels dry out and become difficult to chew without cooking them tender first in boiling water. Modern farming techniques in developed countries usually rely on dense planting, which produces one large ear per stalk.
The kernel of maize has a pericarp of the fruit fused with the seed coat, typical of the grasses, and the entire kernel is often referred to as the seed. The cob is close to a multiple fruit in structure, except that the individual fruits (the kernels) never fuse into a single mass. The grains are about the size of peas, and adhere in regular rows round a white pithy substance, which forms the ear. An ear contains from 200 to 400 kernels, and is from 10–25 centimetres (4–10 inches) in length. They are of various colors: blackish, bluish-gray, purple, green, red, white and yellow. When ground into flour, maize yields more flour, with much less bran, than wheat does. However, it lacks the protein gluten of wheat and, therefore, makes baked goods with poor rising capability and coherence.
Immature maize shoots accumulate a powerful antibiotic substance, DIMBOA (2,4-dihydroxy-7-methoxy-1,4-benzoxazin-3-one). DIMBOA is a member of a group of hydroxamic acids (also known as benzoxazinoids) that serve as a natural defense against a wide range of pests including insects, pathogenic fungi and bacteria. DIMBOA is also found in related grasses, particularly wheat. A maize mutant (bx) lacking DIMBOA is highly susceptible to be attacked by aphids and fungi. DIMBOA is also responsible for the relative resistance of immature maize to the European corn borer (family Crambidae). As maize matures, DIMBOA levels and resistance to the corn borer decline.
Because of its shallow roots, maize is susceptible to droughts, intolerant of nutrient-deficient soils, and prone to be uprooted by severe winds.
Some hazards of maize in the diet
When maize was first introduced into other farming systems than those used by traditional native-American peoples, it was generally welcomed with enthusiasm for its productivity. However, a widespread problem of malnutrition soon arose wherever maize was introduced as a staple food. This was a mystery since these types of malnutrition were not normally seen among the indigenous Americans, to whom maize was the principal staple food.
It was eventually discovered that the indigenous Americans learned long ago to soak maize in alkali-water—made with ashes by North Americans and lime (calcium oxide) by Mesoamericans—which liberates the B-vitamin niacin, the lack of which was the underlying cause of the condition known as pellagra. This alkali process is known by its Nahuatl (Aztec)-derived name: nixtamalization.
Besides the lack of niacin, pellagra was also characterized by protein deficiency, a result of the inherent lack of two key amino acids in pre-modern maize, lysine and tryptophan. Nixtamalisation was also found to increase the availability of lysine and tryptophan to some extent, but more importantly, the indigenous Americans had learned long ago to balance their consumption of maize with beans and other protein sources such as amaranth and chia, as well as meat and fish, in order to acquire the complete range of amino acids for normal protein synthesis.
Since maize had been introduced into the diet of non-indigenous Americans without the necessary cultural knowledge acquired over thousands of years in the Americas, the reliance on maize in other cultures was often tragic. In the late 19th century pellagra reached epidemic proportions in parts of the deep southern U.S., as medical researchers debated two theories for its origin: the deficiency theory (eventually shown to be true) posited that pellagra was due to a deficiency of some nutrient, and the germ theory posited that pellagra was caused by a germ transmitted by stable flies. In 1914 the U.S. government officially endorsed the germ theory of pellagra, but rescinded this endorsement several years later as evidence grew against it. By the mid-1920s the deficiency theory of pellagra was becoming scientific consensus, and the theory was proved in 1932 when niacin deficiency was determined to be the cause of the illness.
Once alkali processing and dietary variety was understood and applied, pellagra disappeared. The development of high lysine maize and the promotion of a more balanced diet has also contributed to its demise.
Maize contains lipid transfer protein, an indigestible protein that survives cooking. This protein has been linked to a rare and understudied allergy to maize in humans. The allergic reaction can cause skin rash, swelling or itching of mucus membranes, diarrhea, vomiting, asthma and, in severe cases, anaphylaxis. It is unclear how common this allergy is in the general population.
Many forms of maize are used for food, sometimes classified as various subspecies related to the amount of starch each had:
- Flour corn — Zea mays var. amylacea
- Popcorn — Zea mays var. everta
- Dent corn — Zea mays var. indentata
- Flint corn — Zea mays var. indurata
- Sweet corn — Zea mays var. saccharata and Zea mays var. rugosa
- Waxy corn — Zea mays var. ceratina
- Amylomaize — Zea mays
- Pod corn — Zea mays var. tunicata Larrañaga ex A. St. Hil.
- Striped maize — Zea mays var. japonica
This system has been replaced (though not entirely displaced) over the last 60 years by multi-variable classifications based on ever more data. Agronomic data were supplemented by botanical traits for a robust initial classification, then genetic, cytological, protein and DNA evidence was added. Now the categories are forms (little used), races, racial complexes, and recently branches.
Maize has 10 chromosomes (n=10). The combined length of the chromosomes is 1500 cM. Some of the maize chromosomes have what are known as "chromosomal knobs": highly repetitive heterochromatic domains that stain darkly. Individual knobs are polymorphic among strains of both maize and teosinte.
Barbara McClintock used these knob markers to prove her transposon theory of "jumping genes", for which she won the 1983 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine. Maize is still an important model organism for genetics and developmental biology today.
The Maize Genetics Cooperation Stock Center, funded by the USDA Agricultural Research Service and located in the Department of Crop Sciences at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, is a stock center of maize mutants. The total collection has nearly 80,000 samples. The bulk of the collection consists of several hundred named genes, plus additional gene combinations and other heritable variants. There are about 1000 chromosomal aberrations (e.g., translocations and inversions) and stocks with abnormal chromosome numbers (e.g., tetraploids). Genetic data describing the maize mutant stocks as well as myriad other data about maize genetics can be accessed at MaizeGDB, the Maize Genetics and Genomics Database.
In 2005, the U.S. National Science Foundation (NSF), Department of Agriculture (USDA) and the Department of Energy (DOE) formed a consortium to sequence the B73 maize genome. The resulting DNA sequence data was deposited immediately into GenBank, a public repository for genome-sequence data. Sequences and genome annotations have also been made available throughout the project's lifetime at the project's official site, MaizeSequence.org.
Primary sequencing of the maize genome was completed in 2008. On November 20, 2009, the consortium published results of its sequencing effort in Science. The genome, 85% of which is composed of transposons, was found to contain 32,540 genes (By comparison, the human genome contains about 2.9 billion bases and 26,000 genes).
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There are several theories about the specific origin of maize in Mesoamerica:
- It may be a direct domestication of a Mexican annual teosinte, Zea mays ssp. parviglumis, native to the Balsas River valley in south-eastern Mexico, with up to 12% of its genetic material obtained from Zea mays ssp. mexicana through introgression.
- It may have been derived from hybridization between a small domesticated maize (a slightly changed form of a wild maize) and a teosinte of section Luxuriantes, either Z. luxurians or Z. diploperennis.
- It may have undergone two or more domestications either of a wild maize or of a teosinte.
- It may have evolved from a hybridization of Z. diploperennis by Tripsacum dactyloides. (The term "teosinte" describes all species and subspecies in the genus Zea, excluding Zea mays ssp. mays.) In the late 1930s, Paul Mangelsdorf suggested that domesticated maize was the result of a hybridization event between an unknown wild maize and a species of Tripsacum, a related genus. However, the proposed role of tripsacum (gama grass) in the origins of maize has been refuted by modern genetic testing, refuting Mangelsdorf’s model and the fourth listed above.
- how the immense diversity of the species of sect. Zea originated,
- how the tiny archaeological specimens of 3500–2700 BC could have been selected from a teosinte, and
- how domestication could have proceeded without leaving remains of teosinte or maize with teosintoid traits until ca. 1100 BC.
The domestication of maize is of particular interest to researchers — archaeologists, geneticists, ethnobotanists, geographers, etc. The process is thought by some to have started 7,500 to 12,000 years ago. Research from the 1950s to 1970s originally focused on the hypothesis that maize domestication occurred in the highlands between Oaxaca and Jalisco, due to the fact that the oldest known examples of maize were found there. Both archaeological and botanical studies published in 2009 now point to the lowlands of the Balsas River valley, at least 8,700 years ago. The crop wild relative teosinte most similar to modern maize grows in the area of the Balsas River. Some of the earliest pollen remains from Latin America have been found in lake sediments from tropics of southern Mexico and upper Central America, up to Laguna Martinez and have been radiocarbon dated to around 4,700 years ago. Archaeological remains of early maize ears, found at Guila Naquitz Cave in the Oaxaca Valley, date back roughly 6,250 years; the oldest ears from caves near Tehuacan, Puebla, date ca. 2750 BC. Little change occurred in ear form until ca. 1100 BC when great changes appeared in ears from Mexican caves: maize diversity rapidly increased and archaeological teosinte was first deposited.
Perhaps as early as 1500 BC, maize began to spread widely and rapidly. As it was introduced to new cultures, new uses were developed and new varieties selected to better serve in those preparations. Maize was the staple food, or a major staple, of most pre-Columbian North American, Mesoamerican, South American, and Caribbean cultures. The Mesoamerican civilization was strengthened upon the field crop of maize; through harvesting it, its religious and spiritual importance and how it impacted their diet. Maize formed the Mesoamerican people’s identity. During the 1st millennium AD, maize cultivation spread from Mexico into the U.S. Southwest and a millennium later into U.S. Northeast and southeastern Canada, transforming the landscape as Native Americans cleared large forest and grassland areas for the new crop.
It is unknown what precipitated its domestication, because the edible portion of the wild variety is too small and hard to obtain to be eaten directly, as each kernel is enclosed in a very hard bi-valve shell. However, George Beadle demonstrated that the kernels of teosinte are readily "popped" for human consumption, like modern popcorn. Some have argued that it would have taken too many generations of selective breeding in order to produce large compressed ears for efficient cultivation. However, studies of the hybrids readily made by intercrossing teosinte and modern maize suggest that this objection is not well founded.
In 2005, research by the USDA Forest Service indicated that the rise in maize cultivation 500 to 1,000 years ago in what is now the southeastern United States contributed to the decline of freshwater mussels, which are very sensitive to environmental changes.
Production quantities and methods
Maize is widely cultivated throughout the world, and a greater weight of maize is produced each year than any other grain. The United States produces almost half of the world's harvest (~42.5%), other top producing countries includes China, Brazil, Mexico, Argentina, India and France. Worldwide production was around 800 million tonnes in 2007—just slightly more than rice (~650 million tonnes) or wheat (~600 million tonnes). In 2007, over 150 million hectares of maize were planted worldwide, with a yield of 4970.9 kilogram/hectare. Production can be significantly higher in certain regions of the world; 2009 forecasts for production in Iowa were 11614 kg/ha. As of 1999 the genetic yield potential of maize had "barely increased in 35 years".
|Top ten maize producers in 2007|
|No symbol = official figure, P = official figure, F = FAO estimate, * = Unofficial/Semi-official/mirror data, C = Calculated figure, A = Aggregate (may include official, semi-official or estimates);|