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Corn — whether it's slathered in butter for backyard picnics, added to food products as a sweetener, fermented into liquor or pumped into fuel tanks — has become one of the most versatile crops of the modern age. But its beginnings are rooted in an ancient past.

An assistant biology professor at Brigham Young University is tracing the genetic history of the plant to possibly learn how Meso-Americans in Mexico at least 8,000 years ago may have engineered modern-day corn by selective breeding of teosinte grass.

Clint Whipple's research identifying functions of a gene that caused a mutation in the plant was recently published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Science Plus.

Whipple said that while studying at the Cold Spring Harbor Research Institute, he began looking at a mutant variety of corn he discovered in Southern California that produced many "tillers" — branch-like parts of the plant close to the ground. Although the mutant gene had already been identified, its significance and role in the early development of corn is still being studied.

Whipple said early American Indian cultures apparently used a primitive form of genetic selection to transform teosinte (tee-o-sen-tay) into corn by using seeds containing the mutant gene to produce a plant that eventually developed into maize, another term for corn.

"Inadvertently, the Native Americans were selecting for changes that were controlled by certain genes, and our research identified what one of those genes may be and how it controls branching," Whipple said in a news release about the study.

One aspect of his research is determining how to eliminate branches on stalks so surrounding plants get more sunlight. If successful, his research could be applied to other grain plants such as rice and other grass.

"Through generations of selection, early Native Americans redefined this crop," Whipple said. "They did this by simply replanting the seeds from the crops that produced the fewest amount of branches and the largest ears of corn."

Whipple, who collaborates with other scientists around the country, is just one of many researchers studying corn.

Mark Lambert, a spokesman for the National Corn Growers Association, said his organization supports research on providing more hearty varieties of corn and lobbies Congress on behalf of its 36,000 members who are involved in producing the largest agricultural crop in the country.

He said mapping the corn genome, completed two years ago, will lead to better production. "Now we have the data to study and work on improvements to the plant," he said.

Scientists have already developed strains of corn that are more resistant to insects and have more hearty root systems. A seed producing a plant that does better in drought conditions is expected to be introduced next year.

"It would have been nice to have this year," said Lambert, about the drought plaguing Midwestern states, where most corn is grown.

Pam Johnson, who headed the fundraising committee for the project to map corn's genome, says research by Whipple and others is crucial to farmers and feeding the world.

"It's important to figure out what gene affects what function," said Johnson.

Johnson, whose family grows corn and soybeans on a farm outside of Floyd, Iowa, is fascinated by the early history of corn.

"It's incredible how the [Native Americans] could even eat the little [teosinte seeds], let alone save the best seeds to make a better food," she said.

With the world's population growing and demand for corn-fed meat rising, the plant will continue to play an important role, she said.

"It also has the potential to replace products made from oil with bio-based chemicals, possibly including the stalk, cob and kernels," she said.