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

January 7, 2010

About Last Night

Filed under: Uncategorized — Tags: — James @ 6:45 pm

The post that I wrote yesterday was inspired by a book I received over the holidays called Where Our Food Comes From: Retracing Nikolai Vavilov’s Quest to End Famine.

The story of Dr. Vavilov’s life and work is a fascinating one, and one I wish I’d heard more of during my undergraduate studies*. Born into a Russia still ruled by the czars, where crop yields were 1/3 that of other nations, Vavilov trained as a plant pathologist, first within Russia and then in Western Europe. His claim to fame though is a career spent traveling five continents collecting seeds and herbarium specimens from crop breds grown by farmers the world over (many of which are now presevered nowhere else) in a time when traveling the world as a far more complicated and risky endevour.

Anyway, I highly recommend reading about Vavilov, but I’m not sure yet if I’d recommend the particular book I’m reading. One source I can whole-heartedly recommend is vaviblog.

Do most people who work in the agricultural biodiversity field not like genetic engineering (and even plant breeders)? It’s surely the impression I’ve got from reading the book thus far, but it’s also possible (I’d like to think more likely) that’s simply the view of Gary Nabhan, and his writing generalizes the opinion to the field as a whole.

*I remember seeing slide showing Vavilov’s centers of crop diversity in a great course I took called “Genetic Improvement of Crop Plants” but that’s about it.


  1. Interesting take on the subject, and thanks for the praise for the Vaviblog.

    Your general question — “Do most people who work in the agricultural biodiversity field not like genetic engineering (and even plant breeders)?” — is one I can’t begin to answer. I can say personally that the greater one’s awareness of agricultural biodiversity, the stronger is the impression that single “breeding” solutions, especially in relation to pest and disease resistance, are inevitably overtaken by the much more rapid evolutionary turnover of pests and diseases. Genetic engineering is even more simple minded than classical plant breeding, transferring just one or a few genes, and is thus even more prone to being overtaken by evolution on the part of the pest or disease. And for nutritional changes, dietary diversity delivers so many additional benefits compared to biofortified staples, that we find it odd that so much money and effort goes into the former and so little into the latter.

    I think this is a very important topic..

    Comment by Jeremy Cherfas — January 10, 2010 @ 10:15 am

  2. I really should have included a mention of the high vitamin A corn, as it’s striking visual example (the only time I’ve every seen bright orange corn) of how much nutritional content can be changed simply by selecting from pre-existing natural variation.

    I wish I remembered more from a class I took several years ago on plant breeding, but the lecturer was making a distinction between finding a single resistance gene (which might buy a crop anywhere from a few years to a couple decades) and selecting for many small additive resistance traits which (he said) was a strategy that had never (yet) been shown to be broken through by pathogens. BUT, the second strategy was a lot more work, especially since he’d worked most of his life without any molecular markers.

    Comment by James — January 10, 2010 @ 10:58 am

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