Case 3: Zea's Wild Roots

Synopsis: An epidemic caused by a fungus has begun in the U.S with potentially devasting effects on the corn crop. Derrick Hernandez and Maria Santini are graduate students studying the epidemic and crop improvement. An important resource in their studies is wild corn, teosinte, which may be resistant to the fungus. Teosinte grows in a few isolated locations in Central America. Maria, a geneticist, and Derrick, an ecologist, are headed south for their first field season. Maria went first to Mexico city to do some archival research on Zea at the Tiemplo Major. Derrick went first to Guatemala to another teosinte site. He'll join Maria and other researchers at the main teosinte site in the mountains of western Mexico, near the town of Durango.



Zea's Wild Roots - Part 1:

Marcus Woods, Maria's husband, began moving the cardboard boxes from storage to their new home office. It was just the sort of project he liked doing while Maria was away. After unsuccessfully struggling with a file drawer, he sat down and picked up one of her Ag papers entitled Corn's Missing Link. Was this the wild maize Maria had talked about collecting in Mexico? Well, he could always ask her when she phoned on Tuesday.

In 1978, he read, a student at the University of Guadalajara named Rafael Guzman had discovered a new species of teosinte growing wild in the high plains of Jalisco, Mexico. "Hmm, what makes teosinte a missing link?" Marcus wondered. He continued reading. The teosinte species was named Zea diploperennis. Furthermore, it was considered quite important that this species was completely interfertile with corn.


Zea's Wild Roots- Part 2:

Derrick accepted the invitation to dinner shortly after arriving from Texas where he had gone for his sister's birthday. Derrick's recent bouts with malaria were certain to be discussed, but the real reason for the get together was to celebrate Maria's unexpected and long awaited pregnancy. Derrick smiled to himself, quite pleased at the non-traditional gift he brought. Knowing Maria's love of archival work on the ancestry of corn, he had obtained a replica of Indian pottery over 600 years old. The Central American piece featured imprints from cultivated corn of the period. Even though the ears were small, it was easy to see multiple rows of seeds.

Derrick's roommate was intrigued by the small ears of ornamental corn Derrick had used to decorate the package. "How come regular corn doesn't have all these colors?" he wondered.

Zea's Wild Roots Part 3:

"As long as we've known each other, I've never asked. How did you two meet?" Derrick asked Marcus as the dinner got underway.

Between bites, Marcus began, "I met Maria while working with OXFAM, a hunger relief organization..."

"Remember stuffing all those envelopes and making all those calls?" Maria said as she flashed Marcus a smile. "Derrick, you'll be interested in this. At that time corn crops were being lost in Africa due to maize streak virus..."

"Thousands of people were suffering without those crops," Marcus interjected.
"... and the teosinte species found in the late 70's proved to be resistant to the virus and gave some real hope. That's when I knew I was going into corn genetics," Maria continued.

"You know, what made me decide to study Zea," Derrick said, "was hearing about when my uncle lost his entire crop in 1970 due to southern leaf blight. He just couldn't understand why every field in the county was affected."

Maria nodded her head knowingly and said simply, "Weather..."

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