Dorothy Hinshaw Patent
Nature's Animal Ambassador
If I asked you what grain is the most harvested in the world, you’d probably answer either wheat or rice. But the answer is actually corn, more accurately called ‘maize.’ This nutritious crop that originated in Mexico feeds not only people but also animals around the world. We’re used to the wonderfully tender sweet corn harvested in late summer and early autumn, but most maize is actually field corn, more starchy than sweet and used as animal feed or to make cornmeal and flour.
For a long time, biologists puzzled about the origins of this important crop. There is no wild plant that looks anything like modern corn, which is actually a giant grass. The closest relative is a scrawny branching plant with hard dark seeds called teosinte. It seems a huge jump from teosinte to corn, yet geneticist George Beadle found in the 1930s that corn and teosinte have the same number of chromosomes and could be crossbred to produce hybrids. With the limited tools available at that time, Beadle deduced that only about five genes were involved in creating the differences between teosinte and corn.
Fast forward to modern times, when scientists can look directly at DNA and analyze every detail of its structure. We now know that Beadle came very close to the truth—about five regions in the DNA seem to control the major differences between teosinte and corn. For example, these two plants look so very different, yet just one single gene turns a branched plant into a single stalk, like a stalk of corn. Another single gene controls one of the most dramatic and certainly most important traits for farmers—the nature of the seeds and their stalk. In teosinte, each seed has a hard covering. Just one gene eliminates the hard covering and produces a stalk bearing exposed seeds, like an ear of corn.
Scientists now use maize as a perfect example of two major ways evolution happens. One way is through major sudden jumps, like the change from a branching plant to a single stalk. The other is the more gradual kind of change that has led to the thousands of different kinds of maize grown by farmers today. There are probably hundreds of varieties of sweet corn and thousands of varieties of field corn. Think about that the next time you bite into a nice crunchy taco made from a corn tortilla.
Corn was a very important crop for homesteaders in the American West, used both to feed themselves as well as their animals. Read about it in Homesteading: Settling America's Heartland, revised and expanded edition, Mountain Press, 2013.
Dorothy Hinshaw Patent is a member of iNK's Authors on Call and is available for classroom programs through Field Trip Zoom, a terrific technology that requires only a computer, wifi, and a webcam. Click here to find out more.
MLA 8 Citation
Patent, Dorothy Hinshaw. "Amazing Maize." Nonfiction Minute, iNK Think Tank, 8
June 2018, www.nonfictionminute.org/the-nonfiction-minute/Amazing-Maize.
Nonfiction is the new black
The Renaissance began in Europe in the 15th century and marked the change from the medieval period to the modern world. Towering figures such as Michelangelo, Galileo, and especially Leonardo da Vinci were known as Renaissance men because of their talents and lasting achievements in several important areas of knowledge. They were also accomplished musicians, public speakers, athletes, poets, and so forth. And they were expected to do all this stuff without breaking a sweat.
You could give the same title to an ancient Egyptian named Imhotep, who lived about 2600 BCE. He was the vizier, the most important government official, during the reign of Pharaoh Djoser. He served as the high priest of the god Ra and was an expert astronomer.
Imhotep designed and oversaw the building of the first major pyramid in Egypt. Located at Saqqara, at the time it was the world’s tallest structure. He innovated the use of stones rather than mud bricks to build it, and it was that added strength that enabled the pyramid to rise so high. He is also credited with the invention of several devices that facilitated the construction.
Many people believe that Imhotep, rather than the Greek Hippocrates who lived more than 2,000 years later, is the real “Father of Medicine.” In an era when most physicians relied on magic spells and appeals to the gods, Imhotep prescribed dozens of effective down-to-earth treatments for illnesses and injuries.
He is credited with ending a seven-year famine in Egypt. He advised the pharaoh to make sacrifices to Khnum, the god of the annual flooding of the Nile River, and thereby provide desperately needed water to farmers. On a more practical level, he invented an improved irrigation system to carry water to the crops even if the river level was abnormally low.
In addition to these accomplishments, an inscription at the base of one of his statues notes that he was “Chief Carpenter, Chief Sculptor, and Maker of Vases in Chief.” In his little spare time, he wrote poetry and dispensed philosophical advice.
Imhotep can also boast of two accomplishments that eluded even Leonardo da Vinci. He was deified after his death and worshipped for many centuries, an honor accorded to hardly anyone besides the pharaohs. And today the comic book community gives him the credit for founding S.H.I.E.L.D., the Marvel Comics espionage and crime-fighting agency that became the basis for blockbuster movies such as Iron Man, Thor, and Captain America.
Jim Whiting has written a book on another great Egyptian leader -- Ramses the Great who lived about 1350 years after Imhotep. He fully lived up to the "Great" part of his name. His reign lasted for 67 years, the second longest in Egypt’s 3,000-year history. He had dozens of wives and more than 100 children, outliving many of them. He was a military leader who expanded the borders of his country. That resulted in decades of peace and prosperity for his people. He ordered huge statues of himself to be erected all over Egypt. For more information, click here.
MLA 8 Citation
Whiting, Jim. "A Renaissance Man - 4,000 Years before the Renaissance."
Nonfiction Minute`, iNK Think Tank, 8 Feb. 2018,
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