The A-maize-ing History of Hybrids

Plato once said, "The beginning is the most important part of the work." So let us take a bit of Plato's advice and begin our tale of hybrids at the beginning.

Quite some time ago across the globe, nomadic tribes transitioned from hunters and gathers to farmers. People began to cultivate crops and domesticate animals. They set down roots, established communities, and began to trade. This was known as the Neolithic Revolution. And it was the beginning of what we have come to call society.

But it was also the beginning of the hybrid. 

Hybrids began with the cultivation of native, wild plants. Most of these were cereal grains. And there is one that you might be pretty familiar with — corn. But corn in Neolithic times wasn't quite like the corn we see today. It was more like grass.

Originally, there wasn't a stalk, just a single stem. Those sweet kernels you're accustomed to biting into on your traditional ear of corn were once encased in a hard shell. And that giant cob used to be but a light snack. Because like all of us, corn had an ancestor, and it's name was Teosinte. 

According to one study, Teosinte differs from modern day corn by roughly 5 genes. But Neolithic farmers weren't geneticists. They didn't redesign the DNA of Teosinte in a lab. They transformed it through an agricultural process known as selective breeding. This is the very essence of a hybrid.

A hybrid can work in one of two ways. A farmer can cross breed two different plants to create a new plant. Or a farmer can selectively breed two of the same plants to create a stronger plant. Each new plant is a hybrid. And they are both naturally created.

Nature creates hybrids all the time. Oak trees, for instance, readily produce hybrids without human intervention. Ducks are rather fond of creating hybrids as well, though some of their combinations result in infertility. But generally speaking, anything in nature is capable of creating a hybrid through cross breeding/pollination.

Creating hybrids to make a stronger plant, a hardier plant, or a plant that produces more fruit dates back to our earliest ancestors. Corn is just one example. Wheat and rice are two more. A-maize-ingly enough, those three are the top three staple crops in the world. And they're all hybrids.