Meet teosinte. You might be surprised to learn that the rather unappetizing morsel pictured to the right would give rise to a much more recognisable staple. Genus Zea, a group of plants in the grass family, encompases all modern domestic corn varieties and their wild cousins, the teosintes. Corn’s sudden appearance in the archeological timeline was a mystery to scientists, until they looked closely at the DNA. A mere five genes separate corn from its ancestral precursor, and both plants have the same number of chromosomes. The two can even produce fertile hybrids! How did wild teosinte become the corn we know today?
A rudimentary food source, teosinte was foraged by mesoamericans more than 10,000 years ago. The ancient people probably began the selection and breeding process without even realising it. It would be logical to collect and save kernels from the tastiest teosintes, ensuring that there would be more for the next season. In doing so, they limited the genepool and compounded the most favorable traits. After several generations, people noticed the results of these deliberate choices and began to refine them. This process is known as selective breeding. A kind of manufactured evolution, selective breeding involves the intervention and influence of people, drastically changing plants and animals.
In the mid-1800’s Gregor Mendel, a friar in St. Thomas’ Abbey, pursued a scientific interest in plant breeding. He identified the interactions of genes by crossing peas of different colors and observing which were passed to the following generation. Some colors passed easily, and were decidedly dominant, while others were more difficult to pass, which he called recessive. Mendel’s work culminated in what we now know as the laws of inheritance. We utilize these guidelines to accurately plan, predict, and effectively control the outcome of each cross.
This uniquely human tradition is by no means relegated to historical record. Ancient wisdom and contemporary science is the basis upon which modern breeders develop new varieties of every edible imaginable. Selective breeding is a symbiosis, working in tandem with nature and knowledge. Agriculture, after all, allowed early people to graduate from hunting and gathering to developing great civilizations. Life as we know it couldn’t be possible without the domestication and subsequent cultivation of fruits and vegetables. Likewise, those genetically unique individuals wouldn’t exist without us.
Here at North Star Orchard we practice selective breeding with our own varieties of beets, carrots, tomatoes, and of course apples. We’d love to share some of our methods and knowledge with you! Perhaps you’d like to develop your own snack-sized tomato, a more disease-resistant squash, or a boldly-colored beet. Breeding your own vegetables allows you to tailor traits to your specific tastes. Breeders before you laid the foundation for success by providing a plethora of unique varieties from which to choose your parental stock. You too can contribute to the growing palate future generations will use to paint delicious new foods. Register for our intensive Vegetable Breeding Workshop, June 17th & 24th, where you'll learn the tools and techniques needed to develop your very own varieties.