While Doebley's motivation comes from the desire to understand basic evolutionary processes, his work, he notes, could also have real-world applications. "People in plant breeding and plant biotechnology take some interest in this work because they are basically trying to continue the domestication process," he explains. "So understanding what's worked in the past could influence what they do in the present to improve corn."

In addition to Doebley and Studer, the Nature Genetics paper's authors include Qiong Zhao, a graduate student in Doebley's lab, and Jeffrey Ross-Ibarra, an assistant professor of plant sciences at the University of California, Davis.

The work was funded through a U.S. Department of Agriculture Hatch grant and by the National Science Foundation.