Hey that’s my gene!

Ariela and I were picking up a weird tomato plant at the nursery the other day, and I wanted to see if I could find some pole bean seeds. While I was searching the seed racks (unsuccessfully), Ariela noticed a seed package with a bright red ear of corn on it. I remember reading about a new variety of red sweet corn several years ago, it looks like they’ve finally made seeds available for it! I bought them and sprouted them right away – they’re ready to go in the ground tonight for some late-season sweet corn. But that’s not the best part. It’s got my gene.

Haha, yeah, I’m already claiming possession of my gene, Sugary Enhancer, which makes really sweet and tender sweet corn. I’m mapping it right now, heck I’m going to find out today if I used some of the maize genome sequence correctly last week in hunting for unique sequences to use for mapping. i’ve got a few posts in the works to tell all about it (while conveniently leaving out the details of where this is all happening), which I may post next week.

Anyway, the Burpee site on the Ruby Queen Hybrid also leads to some information on the difference between “Sugar Enhanced” and “Supersweet” and other kinds of sweet corn genes. Believe it or not, I knew some people who were so afraid of the genetics of their food that they even thought that Sugary Enhancer was the product of genetic engineering – and should be avoided. It’s a mutant of some kind, what kind, we don’t know yet – but that’s what I’m finding out.

To say that something is naturally-occurring does not mean that it is safe, that’s one point on which I hope to educate people. But first, we have to get accurate information out there in a form that people can readily understand and use to enrich their lives, not live in fear of the unknown. For some people, a little of the right information is enough to assuage their worries. But that won’t work for everyone – some people have an ideological issue with changing – even understanding the genetics of the foods we eat.

The Ruby Queen Hybrid sweet corn was made by crossing sweet corn varieties with a red variety of corn, most likely a field corn or flour corn – starchy and gross when you eat it at the immature “sweet corn” stage, but fine for corn meal when fully matured as a grain. Then, through successive backcrosses – where you cross over and over with one parent variety, in this case regular sweet corn (With sugary enhancer!), you can weed out everything but the fancy red color from that original red maize variety. Successive taste testings will help you weed out any weird grassy or fishy flavors (yes, corn can taste fishy), and you now have something red and tasty.

Finally, hybrid corn yields a lot more than run-of-the-mill open-pollinated varieties, for reasons we do not fully understand. So the final step is to cross your red sweet corn with a compatible variety of corn to give you hybrid seed. See this video I made for how this works. (There’s an upcoming video on the taste-testing process.) Now you have a big pile of red sugar-enhanced hybrid seeds that you can sell to farmers, and to curious home gardeners.

The clerk at the counter who sold me my bag of seeds was looking wide-eyed at the picture – how do they do that? She didn’t seem to know what genes were, and it all sounded very weird and scary to her, so I broke it down to very simple terms, but I think I could have done better in that situation. In time, I plan to write something pretty substantial in hopes of reaching people who might be intimidated by orange cauliflower, red sweet corn, Bt cotton, golden rice, and roundup-ready soybeans. They’re not all that dissimilar.

But that’s down the road for me. For now, I’m learning, and eating. So guess who’s having red sweet corn this summer! Yum!

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Karl Haro von Mogel

Karl Haro von Mogel serves as BFI’s Director of Science and Media and as Co-Executive Editor of the Biofortified Blog. He has a PhD in Plant Breeding and Plant Genetics from UW-Madison with a minor in Life Sciences Communication. He is currently a Postdoctoral Scholar researching citrus genetics at UC Riverside.

2 thoughts on “Hey that’s my gene!”

  1. Tonight we ate some “Vision” sweet corn. Raoul’s loves to grow it and the kids and i love to eat it . It is the best of the bunch. check it out!

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  2. Well well, you Shrunken-2 eating traitor. 🙂

    Took me a bit to find out which mutant the Vision variety has. Shrunken-2 makes a crispier sweet corn, but its major drawback is poor germination in cold soils (it used to be horrible at germinating before breeders took over) and I think it yields a little less – but that’s not much of an issue for one’s garden. I believe pretty much all of the sweet corn in canned corn is the Shrunken-2 mutant.

    I wasn’t going to grow any sweet corn because I can get all I can eat from the sweet corn research group (Bill Tracy’s lab) – but when I saw the red one I just had to get it.

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