30 November 2011

Sciency Answers: How multicolor corn works

During Thanksgiving, people must have spent some time looking at decorations involving multicolored ears of corn, because I got several questions all essentially asking, What is up with that? How does a single ear can have many different colors on it, while you never see, for example, a single plant producing yellow, red and purple tomatoes? How does corn pull it off?
Corn does it the same way my parents had five kids, ranging from brown-eyed, brown haired me to my blond blue-eyed brother, with a smattering of hazel eyes and light brown/dark blond siblings in between. In other words, when you look at an ear of corn, you are looking at the next generation, and the genetics of each individual seed determines what color it is. With a tomato or any other fruit, what you see is produced by the mother plant, so it looks the same no matter the genetics of the seeds inside, just as my mother's pregnant belly looked the same whether that particular baby was a blond or brunette. But since each kernal of corn is a seed, you get a preview of the next generation.

As a gardener, and enthusiastic backyard plant breeder, I think this is one of the most fun things about corn. You get a little preview of the next generation before you plant the seed. Buy a mixed packet of petunia seeds and they'll all look the same, you have to plant them to find out what color they are. But when I buy different mixes of colored corn, I get to spend a very happy time sorting through them, picking out the colors I like best, so that when I plant them I get a customized mix of colors I like best.

Have a question? Get a sciency answer! Just e-mail me: engeizuki at gmail dot com

6 comments:

Kylee said...

I never thought about this before. Joseph, you have taught me some of the coolest things. *hugs*

Greensparrow said...

Thanks Kylee! Glad you like it!

allanbecker-gardenguru said...

What a great post!

Jim/ArtofGardening said...

I'm always smarter for having read Sciency Answers. Thank you.

Matt said...

You left out one of the most interesting things about the coloration of maize kernels: transposons!

Greensparrow said...

You are right, Matt, I didn't mention transposons though you can see the effects of some in the spotted kernels in my picture! They might have to be a post for another day.