If I want to turn teosinte into corn, using ancient methods like the Native Americans did, then how much time it takes, and what do I have to do?

For the sake of the question, let's assume that time is not a problem for me. Say I live 10,000 years. But of course, I prefer to have maximum efficiency. If I can get the result in 3,000 years, that's better than 5,000 years.

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    $\begingroup$ Breed together the plants that have any properties that seem more like modern corn, like bigger or more accessible kernels, stir gently, find a cure for aging, repeat over a few thousand generations. $\endgroup$
    – Bryan Krause
    May 16, 2017 at 22:30
  • $\begingroup$ @BryanKrause "repeat over a few thousand generations"... one needs way less than that. $\endgroup$
    – user24284
    May 16, 2017 at 23:10
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    $\begingroup$ @GerardoFurtado Even modern corn (not counting GMO) is quite a bit different from corn 200 years ago. I guess I agree that it doesn't take as many generations before you would classify the plant 'corn' rather than 'teosinte' but it seems like it took at least 1000 years to get to that point, with thousands of years further selection since then to get closer to what we are familiar with today. $\endgroup$
    – Bryan Krause
    May 16, 2017 at 23:18
  • $\begingroup$ Agrred. My point is that people in general, specially laymen, tend to think about domestication as something that requires thousands and thousands of generations to happen. However, domestication of plants (wheat, hemp, corn...) or animals (wolf, sheep, cattle) took fewer generations than what people suppose, sometimes a very small number. $\endgroup$
    – user24284
    May 16, 2017 at 23:21
  • $\begingroup$ @GerardoFurtado FYI someone at my institution is trying to do this see here but expects only fairly minor changes over 30 generations. But your broader point is well-taken. I believe some Russian scientists domesticated a fox within just a few generations, for example. I would say there is a difference between initial domestication and the extreme changes we have built into plants over thousands of years of agriculture. $\endgroup$
    – Bryan Krause
    May 16, 2017 at 23:23

1 Answer 1


Initially I didn't like this question very much, but I changed my mind when I realized that there is actually ongoing research to do exactly what you propose in order to study just how long it takes to get maize from teosinte.

John Doebley at the University of Wisconsin-Madison has a project ongoing to breed 30 generations of teosinte to be more "corn-like" on a single parameter, the length of the lateral branches.

The first challenge is to find a strain that isn't already contaminated by modern maize - that isn't completely possible, but he selected a strain that has minimal hybridization. You would have to do the same.

Second, you have to plant someplace isolated to further prevent hybridization. Dr. Doebley has a plot in Hawaii for this purpose.

Note that even though this scientist is only selecting over 30 generations, he doesn't anticipate that much of a change (i.e., he doesn't expect to have anything like corn when he is finished), and he is only selecting on a single parameter and furthermore, this parameter was chosen specifically for being easy to score, showing a lot of variation in the existing population, and influenced by a known single gene. Many more generations would be expected to get a product like modern corn. And even domesticated corn has changed significantly over thousands of years of agriculture.

For this answer, I simply reference the project site that I linked above, but in case that link goes dead, here is some literature that the project cited directly:

Beadle, G. W., 1977 The origin of Zea mays, pp. 615-635 in Origins of Agriculture, edited by C. E. Reed. Mouton, The Hague.

Beadle, G. W., 1978 Teosinte and the origin of maize, pp. 113-128 in Maize Breeding and Genetics, edited by D. B. Walden. John Wiley & Sons, New York, NY.

Doebley, J., A. Stec and C. Gustus, 1995 teosinte branched1 and the origin of maize: evidence for epistasis and the evolution of dominance. Genetics 141: 333-346.

Doebley, J., A. Stec and L. Hubbard, 1997 The evolution of apical dominance in maize. Nature 386: 485-488.

Doebley, J. F., A. Stec, J. Wendel and M. Edwards, 1990 Genetic and morphological analysis of a maize-teosinte F2 population: implications for the origin of maize. Proc. Natl. Acad. Sci. 87: 9888-9892.

Iltis, H., 1987 Maize evolution and agricultural origins, pp. 195-213 in Grass systematics and evolution, edited by T. Soderstrom, K. Hilu, C. Campbell, and M. Barkworth. Smithsonian Inst. Press, Washington, D. C.

Wang, R.-L., A. Stec, J. Hey, L. Lukens and J. Doebley, 1999 The limits of selection during maize domestication. Nature 398: 236-239.

Wilkes, H. G., 1967 Teosinte: the closest relative of maize. The Bussey Institute, Harvard University, Cambridge.

Wilkes, H. G., 1977 Hybridization of maize and teosinte in Mexico and Guatemala and the improvement of maize. Econ. Bot. 31: 254-293.

  • $\begingroup$ Thanks a lot. While your answer is very informative and useful, I'm still confused about how much time it takes to convert teosinte into corn. What I need is an order of magnitude: 500 years, 1000 years, 3000 years.. $\endgroup$
    – BearCode
    May 25, 2017 at 19:30
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    $\begingroup$ @BearBear Well, all of those time frames you give are roughly the same order of magnitude :) I think it's partly a semantic issue of when you declare the crop to be "corn": the archaeological evidence suggests that corn has changed a lot over the last 3000 years, but even before that was already distinct from teosinte. $\endgroup$
    – Bryan Krause
    May 25, 2017 at 19:54

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