James and the Giant Corn Rotating Header Image

August, 2010:

There’s more of a difference between a crop and a weed than where they grow

In reading the coverage of the transgenes in canola story, two ideas continue to come up that bother be because they’re just plain wrong. I don’t have exact citations for these, but I’ve seen both concepts repeated multiple times on multiple sites.

1. “What’s a crop growing outside of the field where it’s planted? A weed that’s what!”

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Canola Growing on the Side of the Road

In an admirably calm and collected piece, Andrew Pollack writing at the nytimes, reports on a study that will be discussed at the Ecological Society of America meeting. The finding? Canola plant growing by the side of the road (outside of fields) often carry genetically engineered traits for herbicide resistance. It sounds like a fun study to do: (more…)

James and the Giant Corn salutes corn breeders and corn geneticists!

This is close to, or past, the peak of pollinating season across much of the midwest. I, having migrated into computational work, am no longer called upon to put my life on hold, arriving at the corn field before the sun rises and leaving when it becomes too dark to see for a cold shower and a few brief hours of sleep before the next day arrives.  But across the country graduate students, post-docs, professors, and professional crop breeders are doing just that and without the solace I could take back when I was doing the same (that I was an hourly employee and so making loads of overtime!). So to all of you out sweating in the fields, whether it’s in pursuit of greater understanding of the mysteries of live itself, or a new hybrid that will allow farmers to grow even more corn to feed the world, using even less water and fertilizer, we, who do not share your suffering, salute you!

Thus, the field researcher expects to attend to the crossing nursery continuously through the pollinating period (in the Midwest, approximately July 10-August 15). … The seven-day week is a shocking surprise to those not having “interned” in such a program during their graduate days.

  1. Peter A. Peterson and Angelo Bianchi, Maize genetics and breeding in the 20th century (World Scientific, 1999).  page 13

Variation in Gene Expression and Hybrid Vigor

Don’t you just love creative commons licensed images?

Cover image from Rosas et al 2010 PLoS Biology. (Click the image to view it in its original context)

In this case the story behind the image in a paper on hybrid vigor, another subject close to the heart of any biologist who has ever worked with corn, although this group worked with snapdragon, a species that is used as a model system for flower morphology. Snapdragon flowers are interesting genetically because they are only symmetric along one axis. The genes behind this trait have been studied for quite some time and have names like Cycloidea, Radialis and Divaricata. <– Snapdragon folks generally come up with classier sounding names for their genes than the communities for many other model species.

Snapdragon flowers can be symmetrically folder over one axis, but not the other. (Modified from the image above).

The authors of this paper found that the expression* of a number of these genes varied between different species within the snapdragon genus (Antirrhinum). So far so good, but the really exciting bit of this paper is that the authors use the version of these genes from different species (with significantly different levels of expression) to show that while the changes in expression observed between different species don’t make much of a difference to the final shape of snapdragon flowers, being stuck with a low expression version of a gene to begin with means a snapdragon plant has a much more altered shape when one of the copies of that gene is completely broken. (more…)