Crop wild relatives Jedis- hope for the future of plant sciences
Those working in traditional plant and agricultural science fields, such as botany and systematics, plant genetic resources, and classical plant breeding, are deeply concerned about the loss of our living encyclopedias. The professionals that have dedicated their working lives to understanding the dense particularities of particular crops and their wild relatives are retiring and sooner or later heading to that final pasture in mass, and very few are taking their place. I wrote about the importance of the knowledge held solely in the brains of such researchers in the final chapter of my thesis, and some recent evidence shows that this expertise continues to be critical even as we generate and make accessible ever more vast amounts of digital taxonomic, geographic, phenomic, and genomic data.
What needs to be done is multifold, but in essence comes down to a few simple words- invest broadly in basic sciences and in the dedicated researchers that work to improve not only our food and nutrition security, but that of our grandchildren.
While at the 2015 Agronomy, Crop Science, and Soil Science meetings in Minneapolis this past week, I had a rare day of pure hope for the generation of new living encyclopedias, young folk that may be interested and dedicated
enough to carry on basic plant sciences research. The day before participating in a symposium on novel collaborations for crop wild relative research, and later seeing a talk on a lifetime of work on wild peanuts, and reporting on interdependence among countries on crop genetic resources, former DAPA researcher Caity Peterson, former visiting researcher Mikey Kantar, and I volunteered at a science fair at the phenomenal Science Museum of Minnesota. Our table, naturally, was about crop wild relatives.
Mikey brought wild annual sunflower and some distant relatives in Helianthus and Silphium to contrast the big headed cultivated sunflowers of the flower shop variety. He also brought petri dishes in which we compared the seeds of wild and cultivated sunflower, soybean, maize, and wheat.
Meanwhile we unveiled our crop wild relative matching game. Simple and remarkably fun, the task set forth for kids and their parents was to match photos of crops and some of their wild relatives, and to fill the boxes with these matches. The kids were amazingly diverse in their strategies- some confidently mixing and matching at blurring speed, others cautiously testing the look of carrots versus ugly looking skinny roots, big red tomatoes versus scarily hairy wild ones. Those children that had experience with food- whether in the kitchen or the garden- had a clear advantage in the matching game.
The kids were remarkably good at this game, and had a lot of fun doing it. While Mikey passed out cookies for successful finishes, the real rewards were completing the boxes, receiving high fives, and
learning a bit about crops and their wild cousins. Many of the parents were equally or more fascinated than their offspring by the matching game, and a few stayed on to finish the task and ask questions long after their little ones had moved on to the termite races and other squirmy entomological attractions.
By the end of the day, we realized that a few of the children had particular abilities in recognizing crop wild relatives, perhaps in part through talent in pattern recognition, in part through their previous experiences with food and gardening, and in part through a native interest in the weird and wild and its potential usefulness. These little Jedis, we thought, may just be the types that if given good educational opportunities and sufficient freedom to experiment, may find their way to long and satisfying careers working with the plants that feed us. I sure hope so, because we need them.