James and the Giant Corn Genetics: Studying the Source Code of Nature

February 22, 2008


Filed under: University Visits — James @ 8:12 pm

I arrived in Madison last night. This was definitely ones of the more relaxed visits I’ve been on. The first night I was on my own for dinner. In a strange city. Late at night. With no winter coat. So I ended up going down to the bar in the hotel and take a pizza back to my room to eat while watching the presidential debate.


Friday morning I had breakfast with a couple of people from one of the USDA labs on campus, and got the meet the other prospective student who was interviewing the same weekend. I was impressed by how easy it was to get people talking about. Not their own research, but things like the Sargrasso sea meta-genomics project. Some of the other schools I’ve visited, people would talk about their own research, but it was harder to innitiate a discussion of random science.


After breakfast I got a ride in a minivan to campus, where my first meeting was with a plant breeder who works on carrots and garlic. Did you realize that while the average american’s vitamin intake as a whole has gone down or stayed the same over the last fifty years, our vitamin A intake has actually increased mostly as a result of selection for darker orange carrots? Or that purple carrots (which express anthocyanins, the same compounds that make the bases of some corn stalks purple) are being considered as a source of long lasting purple organic dye for things like clothing? 


Then on to a woman who works on germ plasm enhancement in potato. Also a very exciting discussion. Given the ease of switching between diploid and tetraploid individuals, there’s a lot of stuff fun they can do with bringing in genes from wild relatives of the domestic potato. And it raises the potential for developing a potato with four-fold hybrid vigor by generating two diploid hybrids and then combining the two genomes by selecting for diploid gametes . But that’s a long way off. 


After that I meet (sequentially) with three people who do maize work. Also amazing, but not something I’ll be talking about as much here. The key phrase, which I think I should have engraved and hung above my desk is: “Twice as much corn is still twice as much corn.” The context being a discussion on the benefits of focusing on breeding corn to increase biomass, vs breeding corn which is more easily converted into cellulosic ethanol. The latter could always be made obsolete by a new technology for breaking down currently resistant compounds, but the former (say it along with me):


“Twice as much corn is still twice as much corn.”


Both a breakfast, lunch (which we had on campus in their cool looking new microbiology building) and dinner (at a place called Great Dane a microbrewery and restaurant, reminds me of a cross between Hickory Park and Old Main) I was struck by how into plants the graduate students in the program were. The shop talk wasn’t about molecular techniques or who got what grant a new machine that cost X thousand dollars, it was about the plants themselves. And because of that, it was easier and more fun for me to make conversation with people over meals.


So I keep thinking I know where I want to go, and then I visit another school and things get more complicated again. Fortunately this should be my last school visit. So now I get to fly home and bang my head against my desk until I come to a decision. 


For now, I shall lie back in my king-sized bed, and watch the newest episode of Stargate Atlantis on the 32 inch flat screen TV in my room. 😀 

1 Comment »

  1. Sounds good, Wisconsin is nice but the signs/roads can be confusing. WOO CHEESE-HEADS!!!! AND MILLER BEER!!!!

    Comment by Monty — February 23, 2008 @ 1:37 pm

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