Tracking the origin and evolution of maize in the U.S. Southwest

Teosinte growing wild in Mexico. Image: Mbhufford (CC BY-SA 3.0)

Teosinte growing wild in Mexico. Image: Mbhufford (CC BY-SA 3.0)

After it was first domesticated from the wild teosinte grass in southern Mexico, maize, or corn, took both a high road and later on a coastal low road as it moved into what is now the U.S. Southwest.

The study, reported in the journal Nature Plants (open access) is based on DNA analysis of corn cobs dating back over 4,000 years, and provides the most comprehensive tracking to date of the origin and evolution of maize in the Southwest. This settles a long debate over whether maize moved via an upland or coastal route into the United States.

The study compared DNA from archaeological samples from the U.S. Southwest to that from traditional maize varieties in Mexico, looking for genetic similarities that would reveal its geographic origin.

A complex origin

When considered together, the results suggest that the maize of the U.S. Southwest had a complex origin, first entering  via a highland route about 4,100 years ago and later via a lowland coastal route about 2,000 years ago,” said Jeffrey Ross-Ibarra, an associate professor in the Department of Plant Sciences at UC Davis.

The study further provided clues to how and when maize adapted to a number of novel pressures, ranging from the extreme aridity of the Southwest climate to different dietary preferences of the local people.

Excavations of multiple stratigraphic layers of Tularosa cave in New Mexico allowed researchers to compare genetic data from samples from different time periods.

Gene changes through time

These unique data allowed us to follow the changes occurring in individual genes through time,” said lead author Rute Fonseca of the University of Copenhagen. Researchers used these data to identify genes showing evidence of adaptation to drought and genes responsible for changes in starch and sugar composition leading to the development of sweet corn, desired for cultivation by indigenous people and later Europeans.