This corn parasite known as corn smut (Ustilago maydis) is a delicacy all over Mexico, a country that won an unlikely battle against France on this day in 1862. The first Mexican civilizations that learned to cultivate corn grew large in number. Like really large. The ancient Mayans were said to reach more than a million people! When a civilization grows a ton of one plant, they are able to feed many people, but when the human body just consumes corn, it becomes malnourished.
Corn smut was so highly regarded starting with the Maya, because it offered a different set of nutrients that they otherwise were not getting. Today, to Mexican’s it is simply, flat out tasty. In the States, this parasite is ugly and costly, because once it’s found in a field of corn, machines can’t collect the harvest because the spores can spread to the next crop. Oppositely, Mexican farmers welcome the sight of corn smut or huitlacoche as they say it, because it costs more per pound than a glistening yellow ear of non-parasitized corn.
This funky looking parasite is kind of a mycological oddity too. Almost all fungi that use plant carbohydrates must release enzymes that break sucrose or glucose into smaller molecules before it can be transported into the fungal cell. Interestingly, Ustilago maydis can directly transport sucrose from the corn kernel into itself through means of a sugar transporter located on its outer membrane. This membrane transporter greatly enhances this parasites virulence because without pumping enzymes into the corn to break down sucrose, it goes undetected, and the plant cannot mount a defense response. So, U. maydis sneakily steals sucrose, unnoticed. The corn never saw it coming.
Tonight, if you embrace an hour wait at your local Mexican restaurant, ask if they have huitlacoche. If they don’t, tell your friends about it. This might be the tastiest parasite in the world, and I’ve only eaten it canned. Just think, if it wasn’t for this parasite, the Mayan’s might have not lasted as long. With fewer Mayan decedents there’s a possibility that France would have won the Battle of Puebla and we wouldn’t have a valid reason to slug down a margarita tonight.. Happy Cinco de Mayo everybody!