Journal of Genetics

, Volume 97, Issue 5, pp 1075–1082 | Cite as

Hybrid corn and the unsettled question of heterosis

  • Jean-Pierre BerlanEmail author


George Shull’s 1908 seminal article ‘The composition of a field of maize’ marked the ‘exploitation of heterosis in plant breeding, surely one of genetics’ greatest triumphs’. Hybrid corn became a ‘symbol of American agriculture’ and ‘the paradigm for all developments of \(\hbox {F}_{1}\) hybrid crop varieties and more generally breeding. But there is still no consensus on the definition of heterosis while its biological basis, causal factors and genetic mechanisms remain ‘unknown’, or at best ‘poorly understood’. It is thus logical to reverse the usual approach from the exploitation of a mysterious heterosis to the triumph of hybrid corn and focus on what breeders and geneticists do rather than on the theoretical reasons for their success. This factual approach produces surprising results: (i) hybrid corn extends the isolation technique of autogamous cereals to the allogamous maize; (ii) a ‘hybrid’ is an ordinary corn plant made reproducible by the breeder and only the breeder. It is proprietary rather than ‘hybrid’; (iii) for all practical purposes, heterosis is irrelevant; (iv) Shull justified his ‘hybrid’ breeding method by the ad hoc argument of maize ‘hybrid vigour’ which in 1914, he conflated under the name of heterosis with Edward East’s concept of physiological stimulation due to heterozygosity; (v) hybrid corn can increase yield only once and by a small margin and (vi) the huge yield gains of the last 80 years came from mass selection, a process inconsistent with the theory of heterosis. In conclusion, the enduring success of ‘hybrid’ corn was achieved at the expense of farmers, common welfare and biodiversity and dovetails with the industrial agriculture requirements of crop uniformity and breeder monopoly over reproduction. This critical understanding of the paradigm of plant breeding could have important implications for breeders and geneticists.


isolation technique hybrid corn hybrid vigour heterosis Shull’s composition of a field of maize 



What were mere intuitions about ‘hybrid’ corn took shape in the intellectually ebullient atmosphere of Richard Lewontin’s laboratory where I learned that even technical genetic issues should be cast in their proper social, epistemological, historical and political framework and where Diane Paul introduced me to the field of history of science. Her sharp mind was decisive from the early stages to the completion of this article. Both declined to co-author it although it is also theirs. I am grateful to the reviewers of the Journal of Genetics for their suggestions.


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© Indian Academy of Sciences 2018

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Directeur de Recherche (retired)INRAMontpellierFrance

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