A FEW years ago, Walton C. Galinat invented a square ear of corn that won't roll around on your dinner plate. Butter doesn't slide off it, and it stacks neatly in freezer or refrigerator. But Dr. Galinat never intended this particular variety to be an ideal edible. He raised square corn only for research. It is his reconstruction of a missing link in corn's ancient, wild ancestor, teosinte. Dr. Galinat is one of the world's foremost authorities on the evolution of corn. He has bred more than 30,000 pedigrees of the plant. One important result of his research is the discovery of traits from earlier corn that can be bred into modern varieties to make them more useful. He also breeds corn for tenderness, long-lasting sweetness, and early maturity.
``Corn is the basis of our very existence,'' the renowned plant geneticist explains to a reporter in his tiny office next to the greenhouse at the Waltham Experiment Station.
``Every North and South American civilization has been built upon it,'' he says. ``In the United States, corn is so critical that the loss of one year's crop could create economic chaos. Unless genetic variability is treasured and carefully preserved, we and our mutually symbiotic food plants may vanish like the dodo.''
Colleagues agree that Galinat, a fellow of the American Academy for the Advancement of Science, is brilliant, creative - and completely unorthodox. In 1978 Dr. Galinat won first prize in a longest-ear breeding contest with a Waltham Dent, a pedigree corn that produced a two-foot-long ear. Dent (field) corn is the familiar yellow, commercial corn, grown for animal feed, ethylene alcohol, breakfast flakes, corn syrup, and corn starch.
Another of his hybrids, called Golden Happiness, has no glume (chaff) at the base of its kernels. Instead of biting into the kernels as we do now, Galinat says that, in the future, we'll bite off the whole kernel, getting more food value per ear, with less corn stuck between one's teeth.
One of his corns that has attracted much attention is a fully mature ``baby corn'' no bigger than a finger, which has no silk tassel and is eaten cob and all.
(This is not to be confused with the Taiwan-grown version used in Chinese dishes, which is not genetically small but is picked when immature. Such a process is labor-intensive, so Galinat has worked on an ear that will never grow bigger than your little finger and can be handled by machinery, making it economical for American growers.)
He has also bred corn higher in oil and protein. On the less practical side, he even developed a red, white, and blue variety for America's Bicentennial in 1976.
For most of us, corn means the summer treat of fresh-picked sweet corn. And as hybrids proliferate through research like Dr. Galinat's, sweet corn lovers can choose from among a growing number of extra-sweet and sugar-enhanced varieties.
As for Dr. Galinat, he says he eats corn every day, often more than once, and sometimes uncooked. The professor's favorite food other than sweet corn is probably cornbread, he says, and he often has corn cakes, fritters, or other dishes made from his favorite vegetable.
Although his passion for corn centers on its practical uses, Galinat is also interested in solving the aesthetic problems of sweet corn.
One of his ideas, Candy Stick, came from adapting to American sweet corn the genetic traits of the slender Peruvian String Corn. The result is a slim, 10-inch cob that is easier to eat and fits in the freezer better.
BECAUSE Candy Stick must be hand harvested it is not practical commercially, though the seed is available for home gardeners through some mail-order companies.
``It's nice to have elegant things if one can,'' Galinat says.
Galinat's fascination with Zea mays started when, as a high school student, he got a job at the Connecticut Agricultural Experiment Station in New Haven, Conn. Later, as a botany major at the University of Connecticut and as a graduate student at the University of Wisconsin, he broadened his scope to include the morphology and evolution of corn.
At the University of Massachusetts Experiment Station here, he is surrounded by the real thing - growing, dried, and in seed form - as well as corn in pictures, posters, books, and various objects duplicating the yellow or multi-colored ears, shoots, or leaves. They fill his office, greenhouse, and field-growing area, where a pair of huge, bright-colored eyes help keep birds from his treasures.
His cornfield is not your normal row upon row as high as an elephant's eye. Some are amazingly tall, others are dark red, or green with white stripes. There are short, bushy clumps; some are tall and skinny; one grows flat on the ground rather than erect. A few would look handsome in a flower garden.
Galinat shows off one that does not produce any seed at all ``minus 100 percent negative,'' he says. (So how did he obtain the seed to grow the plant? Galinat explains, but not in a way that could demystify this unscientific reporter.)
By far the most controversial of Galinat's breeds is his ``square'' corn with its four rows of kernels and short, minimal cob. He achieved it by crossing corn with its closest relative, teosinte, an Aztec word meaning ``God's corn.''
The result includes many of Galinat's aesthetic goals. He hopes the plant will counter the present image of corn on the cob as bulky and unwieldy. but it has generated everything from cheerful curiosity to derision and doubts.
Despite the criticism, Galinat regards square corn as an important genetic discovery. ``It gives a magnified view of a process that takes thousands of years in nature,'' he says. ``Square-shaped corn or similar types, were the only forms existing 7 or 8,000 years ago. In tracing the various steps in the evolution of corn, I have tried to recapture certain traits that disappeared thousands of years ago in the domestication process.''
No one else has traced these traits as Galinat has, using genetic analysis, breeding studies, and archaeological remains.
``Thousands of years ago, corn looked nothing like it does today,'' he says. ``For one thing, it had no cobs. Selections made by man eventually produced the cobs which were a great help in harvesting and storage and provided more food with less work.
``If we understand evolutionary history,'' he adds, ``we can go about further improving it. If necessary we can pick up pieces that have been lost along the wayside, but can be useful in telling about the future.''
Many of Galinat's varieties are still a long way from the marketplace, since his innovations take much applied breeding before they can be grown, harvested, shipped, and stored economically.