Putting the sweet in corn

Putting the sweet in corn

Bite into a piece of sweet corn at the Urbana Sweetcorn Festival this week and you will be biting into a piece of University of Illinois history.

Fifty years ago next month in the journal Genetics, John Laughnan, a UI corn geneticist and botany professor, published an article describing a gene that caused corn kernels to store less starch and more sugar.

Laughnan thought the sweet corn industry might be interested in the finding for inclusion in commercial hybrids.

It wasn't.

So he began to breed the gene into some of the more popular sweet corn varieties himself. In 1961, he released his handiwork through Champaign-based Illinois Foundation Seeds – the new "supersweet" corn became known as "Illini Chief" – and it took off from there.

Half a century later, brands derived from Laughnan's work, and another variety developed in the late 1960s and early 1970s by UI horticulture Professor A.M. "Dusty" Rhodes, rule the marketplace.

That history will be one of the featured attractions at the UI's 47th annual Agronomy Day, set for 7 a.m. to 2 p.m. Thursday at the Crop Sciences Research and Education Center off St. Mary's Road and Wright Street extended.

Aaron Hager, a UI weed scientist and co-chairman of the event, called it "a chance to report to the citizens of the state what we've been up to, essentially."

The day will include four hourlong tours of more than 20 UI research projects, covering topics from soybean rust and scab-resistant wheat to fertilizer application controls and hog odors, besides sweet corn history. Also on tap are a variety of static displays in a big tent near the registration area.

Hager said Agronomy Day has drawn about 1,400 people in recent years, including farmers and farm managers, agriculture industry representatives, state officials and school groups.

"We've got a pretty wide variety in terms of our audience," he said.

Some of that audience may be in for a taste treat. UI Professor Jerald "Snook" Pataky likes to have visitors contrast traditional sweet corn, unchanged by the advances of Laughnan and Rhodes, with a new variety combining the best qualities of both. Think soda cracker versus sugar cookie.

The UI research didn't just make sweet corn sweeter. It also extended the shelf life to more than a week, said Pataky, who's carrying on the UI's tradition by working to make sweet corn varieties with improved disease resistance.

Pataky doesn't refer to his study of sweet corn history as research. It's a natural outgrowth of his work in an industry he enjoys, he said.

"I really like sweet corn," said the plant pathologist, whose specialty is sweet corn diseases. "This is hardly work to me."

He also is a former student of Laughnan. Pataky said Laughnan, who died in 1994, used his work with the gene that led to sweet corn as an example in his genetics class in the mid-1970s. But he never mentioned the practical application, which had spread worldwide by then.

"He was extremely modest," Pataky said.

Laughnan wasn't even thinking about sweeter corn when he made the discovery. He was looking for linkages between a gene that caused corn kernels to shrink and another that turned them purple.

Illinois Foundation Seeds, Crookham Co. and others kept developing and popularizing the supersweet corn. The variety really hit it big in the early 1980s when Abbott and Cobb seed company started a major marketing campaign targeting produce buyers for grocery stores.

Meanwhile, Rhodes at the UI found a way to make traditional sweet corn sweeter, although not quite as sweet or as long-lived on the shelf as Laughnan's, and still retain the tenderness and creamy quality that had been reduced somewhat in the supersweet variety.

Pataky said the two types have vied since. But a variety developed recently by Illinois Foundation Seeds, Crookham and a few other companies, called "extra tender," combines the best qualities of both and seems likely to become dominant.

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You can reach Greg Kline at (217) 351-5215 or via e-mail at kline@news-gazette.com.

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