Don’t Forget About the Plants

by Ace Pugh (@acepugh_)

Hello, dear reader, and welcome to my own personal corner of this blog. By now, I imagine you’ve already read some of my friends’ blog posts and enjoyed them very much. However, I’m sure that you were probably also asking a very important question: where’s the plants? We get to see some cool fish-dad related things, some information storage in cells, even some frickin’ laser beams; however, plants also need to have their time in the sun, both literally and figuratively. I’m here to give them that spotlight. I’m here to speak for the plants (but not for the trees specifically).

Now, it’s important to note that I’m primarily a plant breeder, so I think a good place to start is to give a quick introduction to my discipline. As a plant breeder, I use principles from many different disciplines in order to improve the genetic potential of plants (Thanks, National Association of Plant Breeders, for that definition). To be more specific, I work to improve plants that are prized by humans for their food, fiber, feed, fuel, etc. For example, nobody is going to spend time breeding poison ivy (or at least, nobody has yet) since it’s not of value to humans.  Thus, we focus our efforts on the crops that we care about such as corn, rice, apples, wheat, pecans, etc. By selecting the very best plant parents, we can attempt to produce progeny that are better (that produce more) than anything we had previously. We decide which material to advance based on a large set of factors including pest or disease resistance, drought tolerance, heat tolerance, yield, and many others.

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Yours truly, measuring the height of some sorghum plants. Sorghum is a very important food crop in Africa and Asia. It is also the best crop species ever (citation needed).

 

Interestingly, plant breeding is a process that is as old as recorded history. While today’s plant breeders use more sophisticated techniques, the first plant breeders were actually early farmers. Whenever a person first decided to keep seeds from one plant over another, and get rid of material that wasn’t as desirable, plant breeding was created as a practice. In fact, the crop species as we know them today are quite far removed from what they originally started as (take maize as an example, below). Centuries of selective breeding has created the crops that we now know and love.  It’s similar to how great movies are made; that is, multiple researchers with different perspectives are constantly working to improve these species, and only the very best material makes its fateful trip through the “editing room” that is the modern breeding program.

Maize-teosinte

Modern maize or corn (bottom) pictured alongside teosinte (top) and a hybrid between the two (middle). Teosinte is a wild species of maize that serves as an example of what the crop was like prior to centuries of artificial selection by humans. Notice that the modern corn appears to have a much higher deliciousness quotient than the teosinte. (Photo by John Doebley https://teosinte.wisc.edu/images.html)

 

Although that all sounds reasonably simple, it’s probably also becoming obvious that there’s quite a bit more complexity to what plant breeder do. While the basics I just outlined are all true, I’d be remiss if I didn’t point out that modern breeding programs are quite a bit more involved. As breeders, we now must possess a working knowledge in many different disciplines including plant pathology, entomology, statistics, soil science, agronomy, computer science, remote sensing, economics, and countless others. Sure, we can and should collaborate with other researchers whose expertise is in those areas, but we still need to know enough to understand which questions need to be asked. This works out very well for yours truly since I have a notably short attention span, and I’ve gotten to dip my toes into many different fields of study during my time as a graduate student. My passion, my raison d’être in fact, is to integrate devices and techniques from other disciplines into a breeding program, and I’ve focused most of my time and energy in pursuit of that goal. To be sure, this is a very exciting time to be in plant breeding, with remote sensing becoming an increasingly popular avenue by which plant breeders can increase the efficiency of their programs. Anyways, let’s not get ahead of ourselves. I could go on about this for quite a while, so trust me when I say that you’ll get to hear quite a bit about remote sensing and high-throughput phenotyping from me in the months and years to come.

In summary, you can clearly see that plant breeding is a very broad discipline and encompasses many different others therein. You may also surmise that plants are the best thing ever, or that I’m very good at holding a measuring stick, or that popped teosinte would make a lousy snack food to eat while watching the latest Avengers movie (all three assumptions are likely correct). I’m honored that I am going to have a platform through which I can share some of my interests and comment on the latest research in my field. Together we’re going to have a lot of fun and, just maybe, learn something at the same time.