Where Do New Plants Come From?

What This Post Is – and Isn’t – About

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.)

Historically, the most common ways have been through grafting and, most importantly, plant breeding.

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.

The “New” Way To Make A New Plant

The “new way”, of course, is “genetically-modified” plants or transgenics, a.k.a., GMO’s

“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)

Two recent examples about how plant breeders are currently using this gene-transfer technology involve oranges and tomatoes.

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.

Online Resources

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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One Comment

  1. Hi Professor Stout,

    My name is Keira Havens, and I’m part of the team at Revolution Bioengineering making color-changing flowers. We’re making these plants with biotechnology, but we’re developing them specifically for consumers.

    For almost everyone outside of the farming world, it will be the first time they will have interacted with a genetically modified organism. By engineering traits for consumers (flower colors, shapes, smells) we hope to make this technology more approachable and eventually fully realize the promise of plant biotech to provide food, fuels, and fibers in a sustainable way.

    Here’s a video of our prototype color-changing flower: http://revolutionbio.co/home-2/concepts/

    Would you consider sharing our work with your readers? I would love to talk with you about our project and where we want to head in the future.

    All the best,
    Keira Havens
    CEO
    Revolution Bioengineering
    http://www.revolutionbio.co

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