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Popcorn: A kernel of Purdue history

If you’re eating popcorn, there’s a little bit of Purdue in there, guaranteed,” Jay Hulbert, president and CEO of Ag Alumni Seed, said. He would certainly know.   

Ag Alumni Seed, a Purdue affiliate and commercial seed breeder and distributor, is one of the leading vendors of hybrid popcorn seeds in the world. Founded initially in the 1930s to market a variety of hybrid seeds, including watermelon, tomato and grain, developed by College of Agriculture researchers, the company now primarily specializes in popcorn.   

The genetics used by Ag Alumni Seed, and most other popcorn seed producers, can be traced back to Bruce Ashman, a former professor of botany and plant pathology within the college. Ashman built and advanced a world-class popcorn genetics program that produced seeds optimal for popping. After Ashman retired from Purdue in the mid-’90s, he spent several years consulting with Ag Alumni Seed.   

“Popcorn isn’t just an American snack anymore. It’s a global snack that continues to grow in popularity.”

“The way plant breeding works is you begin with a broad base,” Hulbert explained. “We started with Purdue genetics and brought in other popcorn genetics from throughout the Americas. The original Purdue genetics have been diluted and re-crossed, but they are still important.”  

Popcorn genetics are different from other types of corn used for animal feed or human consumption, Hulbert added. Like any crop, the yield is essential, but characteristics like expansion (the ratio between the weight of kernels and the volume popped), shape, color and grain size are also prioritized. “Taste and mouthfeel are also important but difficult to breed for,” Hulbert said.   

Most of the popcorn produced today is from F1 hybrid varieties, Mitch Tuinstra, agronomy professor of plant breeding and genetics, Wickersham Chair of Excellence in Agricultural Research and scientific director of the Institute of Plant Sciences, said.  

Almost all popcorn is GM-free, Tuinstra added, which means it contains no genetically modified materials. For this reason, seed producers must take extra care when cultivating hybrid seed production.  

“The F1 hybrid popcorn seed is produced in the U.S. corn belt so great care is taken to ensure that the popcorn seed lots are not contaminated with pollen from adjacent fields planted with corn having GM traits,” Tuinstra added,   

While popcorn seed is evolving to ensure better yields and superior product, the favorite snack has existed for thousands of years. Now, we make popcorn in a microwave, but before that, and not so long ago, it was made on a stovetop. And prior to that? Over an open flame.   

Popcorn originated in the Americas, likely in Central and South America. In 2012, a 6,700-year-old corn cob, clearly showing signs of popping over a fire, was unearthed in Peru. Now, of course, popcorn is consumed all over the world, in movie theaters and the comfort of our own homes.   

“Popcorn isn’t just an American snack anymore,” Hulbert said. “It’s a global snack that continues to grow in popularity.” 

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