Those of us who have grown sweet corn have almost always had to fight smut. That black and gray growth on corn looks disgusting. It is actually a fungus known scientifically as Ustilago maydis, and it has been around for a long time. Even though we dislike it, in some ways smut is a beneficial fungus.
Archaeologists studying ancient Puebloan people have found significant amounts of corn smut spores in their feces. That indicates that maize (corn) made up as much as 80% of the diet of ancestral Puebloan people and it included a great deal of the fungus.
One of the mysteries of ancient peoples in America is why they didn’t have nutritional diseases that were common in the world at that time. The most serious of those was the skin disease pellagra which is caused by a lack of niacin (vitamin B3) in the diet. The amino acid that prevents pellagra is missing from the maize but is present in high concentrations in the smut.
We generally have a negative attitude toward fungi, but there are many examples of beneficial fungus. Remember that penicillin was derived from a fungus. Now we find corn smut also offers a benefit. God has a use for everything He created, but sometimes it takes us a while to figure out what that use is.
We have a children’s book about beneficial fungi, and you can see it online HERE.
–John N. Clayton © 2018
Reference: Archaeology, November/December 2018, page 20.