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Church Exhibition Gallery, Lyman Plant House
September 16 - December 15, 2013

Maize is the largest production crop in the world and plays a central role in all of United States agriculture and food production. Explore the science of maize, one of the most significant crops to humankind for thousands of years, and why it continues to surprise us today.

What is maize? Why is it important? How has it changed? Come and explore the answers to these questions and some of the newest discoveries in modern science through maize. Learn about the genetic research that helps scientists to better understand the evolution of this crop and how that knowledge can improve everyday life, at both a local and global level.

This ancient grain was among the many organisms that evolutionary scientist Charles Darwin examined. In his travels to South America, Darwin recognized the tremendous variation in maize and its long history of intentional breeding. In regards to domestication, Darwin stated,
“Although man does not cause variability and cannot even prevent it, he can select, preserve, and accumulate the variations given to him by the hand of nature almost in any way which he chooses; and thus he can certainly produce a great result” (from The Variation of Animals and Plants Under Domestication, Charles Darwin, 1868).

The exhibition explores how scientists utilize the process of evolution to encourage the selection of “functional”and useful mutations for increased disease resistance, healthier and larger plants, and maintained diversity. The natural diversity within a species can provide a plant with a buffer against changes in its environment, providing the plant with the flexibility to adapt. Scientists are using conventional and molecular plant breeding to combat world health issues, such as vitamin A deficiency, a major health problem for millions of people in the developing world. In extreme situations, for example drought or disease epidemics, diversity can be essential for the survival of the population.

Learn about fascinating advances in the science of plant genetics, the history, the process, and the controversies. Don't miss this opportunity to explore evolution in action through history and science.

Download Flyer

Teacher's Guide to the Exhibit

Organized by the Museum of the Earth at the Paleontological Research Institution
made possible by the National Science Foundation


Let's Talk Corn!
Friday, November 15, 3:30 - 4:30 pm

Join us for an informal gathering with corn geneticist Edward Buckler and research scientist turned museum educator, Carlyn Buckler, both involved in the development of the Maize exhibit on view at the Botanic Garden. They would be delighted to meet Smith students interested in plants, genetics, and science education, and talk about research and career choices.
Refreshments, including cookies, coffee, and tea.


Maize Exhibition Lecture
Friday, November 15, 2013 at 7:30 pm
McConnell Hall Room 103
Maize, Mysteries of an Ancient Grain

by Edward S. Buckler

Edward Buckler
Research Geneticist at the
USDA- Agricultural Research
Service, Adjunct Professor of
Plant Breeding & Genetics at
Cornell University, and one of
the developers of the exhibition.

Corn, like many crops, has an amazing genetic diversity, especially when compared to our own lineage -- that of mammals. We can read this diversity because DNA sequencing has become 100,000-fold cheaper in the last five years. So, now we know there are more than 100 million common points of genetic variation distributed across corn’s genome, which makes any two varieties far more different genetically than humans and chimpanzees are from one another. Such incredible diversity is the product of evolution and adaptation over the last five million years, and has already allowed corn to respond to selection and breeding in amazing ways. But it also provides the potential for creating a more sustainable crop that satisfies some of the desperate nutritional needs facing many parts of the world today.


By combining some of world’s largest field and DNA studies with mathematical analysis, we now understand the complexity of how many genes are involved in variability and their control of how a plant grows. Given this new knowledge, we can make powerful predictions on how a crop plant will look just from its DNA. Researchers around the world are trying to harness this knowledge to accelerate breeding, selecting desirable traits many times faster than before and rapidly delivering more nutritious crops for the developing world. Societally, we now need to discuss and determine the best use of these powerful genetic tools and natural variation. How do we make our crops less susceptible to drought? Should we shift our agriculture to perennials? Can we sequester carbon with a new generation of crops? Plant breeding and genetics has the potential to contribute to -- and solve -- numerous agricultural issues, but the question that remains is how best to use these new technologies, knowledge and resources to increase food security throughout the world.

Followed by a reception with light refreshments at the Lyman Plant House with the Maize exhibition on view and the Chrysanthemum Show illuminated in the Lyman Conservatory.


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