Corn smut

Corn Smut
Scientific classification
Kingdom: Fungi
Subkingdom: Dikarya
Phylum: Basidiomycota
Subphylum: Ustilaginomycotina
Class: Ustilaginomycetes
Order: Ustilaginales
Genus: Ustilago
Species: U. maydis
Binomial name
Ustilago maydis
(Persoon) Roussel

Corn smut (Ustilago maydis) is a pathogenic plant fungus that causes smut disease on maize (Zea mays) and teosinte (Euchlena mexicana). The fungus forms galls on all above grounds parts of corn species, and is known in Mexico as huitlacoche; it is eaten, usually as a filling in quesadillas and other tortilla-based foods and soups.



In Mexico, corn smut is known as huitlacoche ([witɬakotʃe], sometimes spelled cuitlacoche). This word entered Spanish in Mexico from classical Nahuatl, though there is debate as to which Nahuatl words huitlacoche derived from. In modern Nahuatl, the word for huitlacoche is cuitlacochin, and some sources deem "cuitlacochi" to be the classical form.[1]

Some sources give the etymology as coming from the Nahuatl words cuitla ("excrement" or "rear-end") and cochtli ("sleeping", from cochi="to sleep"), thus giving a combined meaning of "sleeping/hibernating excrement."[1][2]

A second group of sources deem the word to mean "raven's excrement".[3][4] These sources appear to be combining the word cuitlacoche for "thrasher"[5] with cuitla, meaning "excrement". However, the avian meaning of cuitlacoche derives from the Nahuatl word cuicatl ("song"), itself from the verb cuica ("to sing").[1] This root then clashes with this reconstruction's second claim that the segment cuitla- comes from cuitla ("excrement").

One source derives the meaning as "corn excrement", using "cuitla" again and tlaole ("maize").[6] This requires the linguistically unlikely evolution of tlaole into tlacoche.


Although it can infect any part of the plant it usually enters the ovaries and replaces the normal kernels of the cobs with large distorted tumors analogous to mushrooms. These tumors, or "galls", are made up of much-enlarged cells of the infected plant, fungal threads, and blue-black spores. The spores give the cob a burned, scorched appearance. The name Ustilago comes from the Latin word ustilare (to burn).

Huitlacoche grows best during times of drought in a 78°F to 93°F (25°C–34°C) temperature range. Aztecs purposely inoculated corn with the spores by scratching their corn plants at the soil level with a knife—thereby allowing the water-borne spores easy entrance into the plant.[citation needed]

Life cycle

Ustilago maydis diploid teleospores
Ustilago maydis haploid sporidia

When grown in the lab on very simple media, it behaves like baker's yeast, forming single cells going by the name sporidia. These cells multiply by budding off daughter cells. When two compatible sporidia meet on the surface of the plant, they switch to a different mode of growth. First, they send out conjugation tubes to find each other, after which they fuse and make a hypha to enter the maize plant. Hyphae growing in the plant are dikaryotic; they possess two haploid nuclei per hyphal compartment. In contrast to sporidia, the dikaryotic phase of U. maydis requires infection of the plant in order to grow and differentiate and cannot be maintained in the laboratory.

Proliferation of the fungus inside the plant leads to disease symptoms as chlorosis, anthocyanin formation, reduced growth and the appearance of tumors harboring the developing teliospores.[7][8]

Mature spores are released from the tumors and spread by rain and wind. Under appropriate conditions a probasidium is formed in which meiosis occurs. Resulting haploid nuclei migrate into elongated single cells. These cells detach from the probasidium; these are the sporidia, completing the life cycle.


Model organism

The yeast-like growth of Ustilago maydis makes it an appealing model organism for research, although its relevance in nature is unknown. The fungus is exceptionally well-suited for genetic modification. This allows researchers to study the interaction between the fungus and its host with relative ease. The availability of the entire genome is another advantage of this fungus as model organism.[9]

U. maydis is not only used to study plant disease. In 1996, a study on U. maydis genetics lead to the discovery of synthesis-dependent strand annealing, a method of homologous recombination used in DNA repair.[10] Other studies in the fungus have also investigated the role of the cytoskeleton in polarized growth.[citation needed] It is largely due to work with U. maydis that the function of the breast-cancer gene BRCA2 is now known.[11]

Culinary uses

Huitlacoche Corn Taco.
Huitlacoche for sale in the produce department of a Soriana store in Mexico.

Smut feeds off the corn plant and decreases the yield. Usually smut-infected crops are destroyed. Some farmers may also choose to prepare corn silage out of the smutted corn. It is most popular in Mexico, where it is known as "huitlacoche" and can be regularly found as an option in meals. The consumption of corn smut originates from ancient Aztec cuisine and is still considered a delicacy in Mexico, even being preserved and sold for a significantly higher price than corn.[12] For culinary use, the galls are harvested while still immature — fully mature galls are dry and almost entirely spore-filled. The immature galls, gathered two to three weeks after an ear of corn is infected, still retain moisture and, when cooked, have a flavor described as mushroom-like, sweet, savory, woody, and earthy. Flavor compounds include sotolon and vanillin, as well as the sugar glucose.

The fungus has had difficulty entering into the American and European diets as most farmers see it as blight, despite attempts by government and high profile chefs. In the mid-1990s, due to demand created by high-end restaurants, Pennsylvania and Florida farms were allowed by the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) to intentionally infect corn with huitlacoche. Most observers consider the program to have had little impact[citation needed], although the initiative is still in progress. The cursory show of interest is significant because the USDA has spent a considerable amount of time and money trying to eradicate huitlacoche in the United States. Moreover, in 1989 the James Beard Foundation held a high-profile huitlacoche dinner. This dinner tried to get Americans to eat more of it by renaming it the Mexican truffle.

Native Americans of the American Southwest, including the Zuni tribe, have used corn smut to induce labor. It has similar medicinal effects to ergot, but weaker, due to the presence of the chemical ustilagine.[13]


In Mexico, huitlacoche is mostly consumed fresh and can be purchased at restaurants, street or farmer's markets throughout the country and, to a much lesser degree, can also be purchased as a canned good in some markets and via the internet. Some farmers markets and organic growers are endeavoring to bring fresh huitlacoche to their customers and local food service trade.

See also


  1. ^ a b c Guido Gómez de Silva, "Diccionario breve de mexicanismos", Fondo de Cultura Económica, Mexico 2001. Entries for "huitlacoche" and "cuicacoche o cuiltacoche".
  2. ^ Producción de caviar azteca en invernadero, Teorema Ambiental, published August 2006. Retrieved April 2010 (Spanish)
  3. ^ The Guardian City Guide. November 8, 2008.
  4. ^ Wolff, Barbara. Professor introduces unusual edible fungus to Madison, University of Wisconsin - Madison News, September 19, 2006.
  5. ^ Raúl Marcó del Pont, Guía de aves canoras y de ornato, Conabio-ine-semarnap, Instituto Nacional de Ecología, Mexico 1997. p. 66-70.
  6. ^ Irene Vasconcelos Dueñas, Los hongos medicinales en México, Mexico, August 2007. (retrieved April 2010) (Spanish)
  7. ^ Banuett, F. (1995). "Genetics of Ustilago Maydis, A Fungal Pathogen that Induces Tumors in Maize". Annual Reviews in Genetics 29 (1): 179–208. doi:10.1146/ PMID 8825473. 
  8. ^ Christensen, J.J. (1963). "Corn smut caused by Ustilago maydis. Monograph no. 2". Amer. Phytopath. Society. 
  9. ^ Kämper J, Kahmann R, Bölker M, et al. (November 2006). "Insights from the genome of the biotrophic fungal plant pathogen Ustilago maydis". Nature 444 (7115): 97–101. doi:10.1038/nature05248. PMID 17080091. 
  10. ^ Ferguson, DO; Holloman, HK (1996). "Recombinational repair of gaps in DNA is asymmetric in Ustilago maydis and can be explained by a migrating D-loop model". Pnas USA 99 (11): 5419–5424. doi:10.1073/pnas.93.11.5419. PMC 39261. PMID 8643590. 
  11. ^ Kojic, M; Kostrub, CF; Buchman, AR; Holloman, WK (2002). "BRCA2 Homolog Required for Proficiency in DNA Repair, Recombination, and Genome Stability in Ustilago maydis". Molecular Cell 10 (3): 683–691. doi:10.1016/S1097-2765(02)00632-9. PMID 12408834. 
  12. ^ Uribe, Monica Ortiz (2009-08-20). "In Mexico, Tar-Like Fungus Considered Delicacy". Retrieved 2009-08-20. 
  13. ^ O'Dowd, Michael J. (2001). The History of Medications for Women. Taylor & Francis. ISBN 1-85070-002-8.  p. 410, via Google Books


  • McGee, Harold (2004). On Food and Cooking (Revised Edition). Scribner. ISBN 0-684-80001-2.  p 349, "Huitlacoche, or Corn Smut".

External links

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Look at other dictionaries:

  • corn smut — ☆ corn smut n. a disease of corn caused by a smut fungus (Ustilago maydis), forming large black swellings …   English World dictionary

  • corn smut — noun a smut fungus attacking Indian corn • Syn: ↑cornsmut • Hypernyms: ↑smut, ↑smut fungus • Hyponyms: ↑boil smut, ↑Ustilago maydis • Member Holon …   Useful english dictionary

  • corn smut — a disease of corn caused by a fungus, Ustilago maydis, and characterized by blackish, powdery masses of spores on the affected parts of the plant. [1880 85] * * * ▪ disease       disease of plants caused by the fungus Ustilago maydis, which… …   Universalium

  • corn smut — SYN: Ustilago maydis. * * * a smut of Zea mays caused by Ustilago maydis; ingestion of the infected seeds causes ustilaginism …   Medical dictionary

  • corn smut — /ˈkɔn smʌt/ (say kawn smut) noun a fungus, Ustilago maydis, growing on maize, formerly used medicinally …   Australian English dictionary

  • corn smut — noun A fungus that affects corn (maize), taxonomic name , which induces tumors in the plant, known to be eaten as a delicacy. Syn: cuitlacoche, maize mushroom …   Wiktionary

  • smut — /smut/, n., v., smutted, smutting. n. 1. a particle of soot; sooty matter. 2. a black or dirty mark; smudge. 3. indecent language or publications; obscenity. 4. Plant Pathol. a. a disease of plants, esp. cereal grasses, characterized by the… …   Universalium

  • Corn — is an English word dating back to Anglo Saxon times or earlier meaning cereal or grain. It commonly refers, in modern American usage, to Indian corn, that is, maize, but can also refer to wheat, barley, rye and so on.Early Modern English… …   Wikipedia

  • Smut (fungus) — The smuts are fungi, mostly Ustilaginomycetes (of the class Teliomycetae, subphylum Basidiomycota), that cause plant disease.Smuts affect grasses, notably including cereal crops such as maize. They initially attack the plant s reproductive system …   Wikipedia

  • smut fungus — noun any fungus of the order Ustilaginales • Syn: ↑smut • Derivationally related forms: ↑smut (for: ↑smut) • Hypernyms: ↑fungus • H …   Useful english dictionary

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