Corn has come a long way in 8,000 years, and genetic progress is poised to accelerate further as scientists gain detailed understanding of the plant’s genetic makeup. Just this week, an international team of researchers, under direction of the USDA’s Agricultural Research Service, published the most comprehensive analysis yet of the corn, or maize, genome.

Scientists believe corn, as we know it, emerged some 8,700 years ago, when farmers in Southwestern Mexico began cultivating the crop’s wild ancestors. Those farmers became the first corn breeders, selecting seeds from the best plants to grow the following season.

The first hybrid corn was introduced in 1921, and today, about 95 percent of our corn acreage is planted to hybrid corn, according to a USDA timeline of corn development. We now produce at least 20 percent more corn on 25 percent fewer acres than in 1930, when seed of hybrid corn became available in quantity to American farmers. The economic value of the U.S. corn crop was $76 billion last year, according to the USDA. U.S. growers produced an estimated 12 billion bushels, more than a third of the world's supply. It is the largest production crop worldwide, providing food for billions of people and livestock and feedstock for production of biofuels.

The new, more comprehensive analysis of the corn genome will help speed development of varieties with improved resistance to pests and diseases and provide higher yields in a variety of environments.  Better understanding of corn genetics also should improve development of varieties tailored to specific purposes, such as for fuel, livestock feed or human food ingredients.

"This work represents a major step forward and an important tool in the arsenal available to scientists and breeders for improving a vital source of nutrition, as well as a source of fuel, in the face of changing climates, growing populations and a diminishing supply of arable land," says Edward B. Knipling, administrator of USDA's Agricultural Research Service.

The work was organized by USDA scientists and funded in the United States by USDA and the National Science Foundation. The research was a collaborative effort by an international team of scientists at 17 institutions including Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory, the University of California, Davis, Cornell University, the International Maize and Wheat Improvement Center in El Batan, Mexico and BGI, a genomic research center based in Schenzhen, China.

Read more from USDA/ARS.