This post is mainly about some recent examples of how humans are involved in the “artificial selection” of plants. Many have used this term – including Charles Darwin – to describe the selective breeding of plants and animals. (Since this topic popped up in a previous post, I’ll refer you there for a brief introduction.)
Since we’re talking about artificial selection, as opposed to natural selection, this post is certainly NOT about the evolution of new plant species. This complex topic can, and does, fill volumes of books (but I’ll refer you here if you’re interested in a “taste”).
And, also, this post is NOT about the intrepid plant collectors who roam the world seeking out new plants that may eventually show up on nursery benches. (You can read about such plant collectors here, for example. Or, better yet, read the book The Orchid Thief: A True Story of Beauty and Obsession.)
This post IS about a few recent stories in the roughly 10,000-year-old saga about how humans have domesticated some plants.
The “Old” Ways To Make a New Plant
There are several ways to make a “new” plant. (For example, see online resource #1 below for three.)
In the past hundred years or so, many new plants have been produced by professional plant breeders, employed mainly by public universities, such as Cornell University. Some recent examples of plant breeding at Cornell include apples and broccoli.
Perhaps the most famous plant breeder to most Americans (over a certain age) is Luther Burbank, and one of the few plant scientists to win a Nobel Prize was the American agronomist and plant breeder Norman Borlaug.
Classical plant breeding served people for hundreds if not thousands of years in generating new, improved plants. Then about thirty years ago, something happened and everything changed, and plant breeding has never been the same since.
“Plant breeding takes a lot of work, and since it relies on successful plant reproduction and on multiple layers of plant selection, it can take a lot of time to produce acceptable results, sometimes years.
But what if you were able to identify plant genes known to confer improved heat or drought tolerance, or disease resistance, or increased vigor, or even color? And what if you had a way to transfer such genes directly into a plant’s genome, without all the limitations of plant breeding? And what if you were not limited to only plant genes, but could also transfer microbial and even animal genes into plants. Imagine the possibilities.” (from: PLANT TREK)
Despite the objections to GMO’s, this technology has completely altered the way humans make new plants. The genie, indeed, is out of the bottle.
1. Three Ways to Make a New Plant, The Exploratorium, San Francisco, California.
2. History of Plant Breeding, Dept. of Soil and Crop Sciences, Colorado State University.
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