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An Ancient Variety of Corn Could Help Combat Climate Change. Here’s How

Nitrogen-producing corn may sound futuristic, but it is actually hundreds, if not thousands, of years old – and it may just be the key to unlocking a new age of more sustainable agriculture.

Sierra Mixe, as this variety of corn is dubbed, is indigenous to the Mixes District of Oaxaca in southern Mexico, where the ancestors of today’s corn first evolved, and it can grow to be 20 feet tall in unfavorable growing conditions. The corn’s commanding height, however, isn’t its most impressive trait — that distinction is reserved for its ability to produce its own nitrogen.

Since Howard-Yana Shapiro, now chief agricultural officer at Mars, Inc., came across the Sierra Mixe variety in the 1980s, he had suspected that the corn’s distinct mucousy roots allowed it to produce its own nitrogen, an essential nutrient for cereal crops that farmers typically need to apply to the soil. Now, using DNA sequencing, Shapiro and Alan B. Bennett of UC Davis, along with other researchers, have finally been able to prove Shapiro’s hypothesis correct.

With the corn’s nitrogen-fixing trait identified, researchers are hoping to use innovative breeding methods so that this characteristic can be introduced to commercial corn. The Gates Foundation is also in on the research, supporting projects to impart the nitrogen-fixing abilities of legumes into cereals. If successful, it could help reduce the cost of farming and curb greenhouse gas emissions.

Read more via Smithsonian Magazine