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January, 2010:

About Last Night

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.

Biodiversity and Genetic Engineering Aren’t Mutually Exclusive!

The work of plant breeders and the naturalists who catalog so much of the genetic diversity passed down over 400 generations*, have done far more to feed people than genetic engineering thus far. The reason I spend so much time talking about genetic engineering (and to a lesser extent mutation breeding) isn’t because I think the techniques are more important than breeding using the existing diversity of crop plants and their wild ancestors, it’s because genetic engineering (and once more to a lesser extent mutation breeding) are the techniques that are subject to the most misinformation and opposition. If I had to choose, for the entire world, between marker assisted selection and genetic engineering, I’d choose marker assisted selection in a heartbeat. But we don’t have to chose.

Consider three cases: (more…)

GM crops on Greenwire

So apparently Paul Voosen wrote a five part series on genetically engineered crops? I’ve only read parts four and five which focus on Ed Buckler and the authors of Tomorrow’s Table respectively, but it seems like it might be worth tracking down the remainder of the series.

Congratulations to Ed, Pamela, and Raoul!

More Details on Transmissible Cancer of the Tasmanian Devils

Tasmanian Devil photo: Debbi Long, flickr (click to see photo in original context)

I’ve previously mentioned the disease striking the Tasmanian Devils in a post on genetic bottlenecks:

Even less fortunate are the tasmanian devils who have so little genetic diversity that they are being decimated by a transmissible cancer. After fighting with an infected devil, which has tumors on its face and neck, tiny bits of the cancer will get into an uninfected devil’s wounds, and since the immune system can’t distinguish the foreign cancer cells from the devil’s own cells, the cancer cells reproduce unchecked, the trait that makes normal cancers, produced by mutated versions of our own cells, so deadly. And the solution mentioned in the article, to save the species by protecting 200 individuals, while better than letting them all die, will sacrifice even more genetic variability by subjecting the already inbred devils to a new population (and genetic) bottleneck.

Well now we know even more about the original of the cancer cells responsible for “Devil Facial Tumor Disease” (A truly frightening name). By studying the expression patterns of normal genes and microRNAs, a group of researchers have confirmed once and for all that the cancer cells really are being transmitted from one devil to another because the genes they looked at were identical in sequence in cancer cells taken from 25 different devils. The researchers place the original of the cancer as a more regular (mutation induced) cancer that arose in Tasmanian Devil living approximately two decades ago and even believe that they can identify that first mutated cell as a Schwann cell*. (more…)

Feeding birds on a large scale can lead to speciation?

From The Hindu:

Humans are inadvertently manipulating bird genetics by innocently providing birds with feeders in winter, according to findings by German researchers. Over less than 30 generations, birds visiting British and European gardens in winter have evolved different-shaped wings and beaks, the scientists say.

In time, they could eventually become a distinct species. The birds breed side-by-side in the same Central European forests, but began to follow different winter migration routes after some discovered rich pickings from humans in Britain.

Eventually they divided into two reproductively separate groups. One continued to fly south for the winter, migrating to Spain to forage for olives and other fruits. The other got into the habit of flying a shorter distance north-west to Britain, where bird-lovers fed them.

If you’re interested and with journal access, here is the scientific paper the story is based on (from current biology).