The fact is a corn kernel is a fruit, composed of a part of the female plant, the thin outer wall, and the remaining from fertilization of the female egg by the male sperm nuclei. The cells in the resulting embryo include organelles such as mitochondria that are duplications of those from the female plant as the male’s contribution is only half of the resulting DNA in the seed. Mitochondria genetics, as inherited from the mother plant, may have subtle affects on the hybrid plant but could be major in seed aging and germination.
The powerhouse of almost all living cells in all plants and animals is a very small, bacteria-like organelle called a mitochondrion. It is similar to bacteria in its size, shape of chromosome, organization of its DNA and function. Mitochondria presence in all from the smallest of single cell animals and plants to the largest has led to the hypothesis that it originated as symbiotic relationship with a bacterium 3 billion years ago. The clear advantage of having this organelle that could transform carbohydrates into chemical forms of energy that allowed production of proteins for growth and movement of muscles in animals is overwhelming.
Mitochondria are the size of bacteria and therefore visible only with a strong light microscope magnifying at 1000X but the details require electron microscope power at 30000-50000X. With this extreme level of magnification, mitochondria are shown to be composed of a surrounding double layer of membranes enclosing many folds of membranes. Membranes are significant to function in that these are the sites in which the enzymatic action allowing the energy holding the glucose molecule together is released and combined with nitrogen and phosphorus into another chemical compound, Adenosine triphosphate (ATP). This compound released through the membranes into the rest of the cell for normal cell metabolism. It is also the site in which CO2 is released during respiration.
The fact that mitochondria have their own DNA has had dramatic affects on corn. Individual cells may contain from a few to hundreds of mitochondria and they replicate on their own, independent of nuclear chromosomes. However, when sexual reproduction occurs in plants or animals, and the nucleus from the male donor fuses with the nucleus of the female egg cell, no mitochondria are passed along. Consequently, the mitochondria in the progeny are only those from the female parent. Although the size and genetics of the nuclear DNA is overwhelmingly greater than that of the mitochondrial DNA, and the most profound genetics remains with the nucleus, mitochondria inheritance has had some dramatic affects on plants and animals, including us humans.
Amazing how we are so dependent upon such small things like mitochondria!
About Corn Journal
The purpose of this blog is to share perspectives of the biology of corn, its seed and diseases in a mix of technical and not so technical terms with all who are interested in this major crop. With more technical references to any of the topics easily available on the web with a search of key words, the blog will rarely cite references but will attempt to be accurate. Comments are welcome but will be screened before publishing. Comments and questions directed to the author by emails are encouraged.