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Crop Profiles

Genetically Engineered Crops: Canola

Field of Canola in Bloom. Photo: Joe Shlabotnik, flickr (click photo to view Joe's photostream)

Field of Canola in Bloom. Photo: Joe Shlabotnik, flickr (click photo to view Joe's photostream)

Scientific name: Brassica napus

Genetically Engineered Traits: Herbicide Resistance.

Details of Genetic Engineering:

Two companies have produced canola that is resistant to different herbicides.
Monsanto sells canola (Roundup Ready canola) that is resistant to glyphosate, an herbicide monsanto sells under the brand name Roundup and lots of other companies sell under lots of other brand names since the herbicide itself recently came off patent (the resistance trait is still under patent.)
Bayer sells canola (Liberty Link canola) that resists the completely different, if similar sounding herbicide, glufosinate. Glufosinate is sold under a number of brand names (including, you guessed it, Liberty), but I wasn’t able to figure out whether or not it is still under patent.
About Canola:
Derived from the name “Canadian Oil” canola is an oilseed plant also known as rapeseed. The name change came in the 1970s when conventional breeding (this was approx. two decades before the first genetically engineered plants hit the market) created plants with healthier oil and without the bitter taste , and presumably someone to majored in advertising suggested that selling “Rape Oil” would be a good way to go bankrupt.

Two companies have produced canola that is resistant to different herbicides.

Monsanto sells canola (Roundup Ready canola) that is resistant to glyphosate, an herbicide Monsanto sells under the brand name Roundup and lots of other companies sell under lots of other brand names since the herbicide itself recently came off patent (the resistance trait is still under patent.)

Bayer sells canola (Liberty Link canola) that resists the completely different, if similar sounding herbicide, glufosinate. Glufosinate is sold under a number of brand names (including, you guessed it, Liberty), but I wasn’t able to figure out whether or not it is still under patent.

About Canola:

Derived from the name “Canadian Oil” canola is breed of the oilseed crop rapeseed. The name change came in the 1970s when conventional breeding (this was approx. two decades before the first genetically engineered plants hit the market) created plants with healthier oil and without the bitter taste people associated with rapeseed oil, and presumably someone to majored in advertising suggested that selling “Rape Oil” would be a good way to go bankrupt.

Close up of Canola Flowers. Photo: Pollobarca2, flickr (click photo to see pollobarca2's photostream)

Close up of Canola Flowers. Photo: Pollobarca2, flickr (click photo to see pollobarca2's photostream)

Rapeseed (the USDA doesn’t break out separate statistics for Canola) was the third biggest source of vegetable oils around the world in 2008-2009 at 20.5 million metric tons, coming in behind only soybeans and oil palms.

Canola is the main oil I use in my own cooking. Canola is apparently one of the healthier sources of vegetable oils, but the two things I most appreciate about it are the high smoke point (it’s harder to burn the oil itself*), and low cost. Last time I checked I was able to find a 48 oz bottle of canola oil for 2.99 which was better than local prices for peanut or corn oil. (Olive oil of course comes in much smaller containers that cost $10 or more, not at all suitable for graduate students.)

*Good for someone who is both as indifferent a cook, and as easily distracted as I am.

Banana Biology

When I was giving my lecture to on phylogeny and tetraploidies, I found out not everyone knows why bananas don’t have seeds.

The reason the bananas we eat don’t have seeds is that they are all sterile. A long time ago the Cavendish bananas first came into being when a tetraploid banana (that is a plant that has four copies of every chromosome instead of the normal two) mated with a normal diploid banana. The result, a banana with three copies of every chromosome couldn’t mate or produce seeds. One of the steps in making reproductive cells (the analog of human sperm and egg cells) is the even dividing of a plant’s chromosomes into two reproductive cells.* Normal diploid cells can easily divide into two cells (one copy of each chromosome in each cell), tetraploid plants can divide the same way (two copies of each chromosome in each cell). Hexaploid, three copies in each and so on. Odd numbers of chromosomes don’t work. The plants can’t successfully make the cells it needs to reproduce, if it can’t reproduce it can’t make seeds, and that is why bananas (or seedless watermelons) don’t have seeds. (more…)

Bananas: The Original Not-From-Here Fruit

A banana storage room in Salt Lake City in 1913.

A banana storage room in Salt Lake City in 1913.

As early as 1905 the United States was importing 33 million bunches of bananas a year. Bunches averaged more than 100 individual bananas. Billions of bananas were being consumed in America before the Ford Model-T car was first produced. (more…)

Potato Breeding

Unfortunately the purple potatoes aren't a Cornell Breed

Unfortunately these purple potatoes aren't one of the Cornell breeds

A lot of people may not share my enthusiasm for the potato genome, hopefully you all enjoy eating potatoes. The stereotype of potatoes is lots of boring sameness one identical to the next.* Reality, as usual, is much more complicated. Tens of thousands of cultivars can still be found in the South American regions where potatoes were first domesticated. In America, breeders are constantly working to bring in desirable traits from those (often really cool looking) breeds and even wild relatives of the potato. They face both genetic barriers (species barriers are bad enough normally, but trying to introgress genes across a tetraploidy can be a mess) and consumer acceptance ones.

This was driven home in a story at the NYtimes about Cornell potato breeders who have developed breeds which grow much better in upstate New York, but run into problems because the potatoes look and taste different than the couple of varieties of potatoes consumers and restaurants are used to (most notably Idaho grown Russet Burbanks**). Cornell Extension has been working on overcoming that barrier providing the potatoes to restaurants and, in what I think is a genius move, culinary schools throughout the region.

If you happen to visit New York farmers markets take a moment to ask sellers about the breeds of potatoes they have for sale.*** The potatoes covered in the story are Salem, Eva (both white potatoes), Lehigh, Keuka Gold (yellow breeds), Adirondack Blue and Adirondack Red (both of which are just the color you’d expect from the name.) Purple potatoes in particular just look really cool, see image above.

*There was a saying about accepting differences that I vaguely remember from a childhood TV show, something along the lines of “People aren’t the same like potatoes, and that’s a good thing because potatoes are boring.”

**The Russett Burbank was developed by a truck gardener outside of New York City called Luther Burbank in the 1800s who was initially inspired to become involved in plant breeding by Charles Darwin’s 1868 The Variation of Animals and Plants Under Domestication. He later moved to California where he became famous plant breeder and, among other things championed the practice of grafting (connecting a cutting from one plant (usually a tree) to the stem of another, which, if done properly grows the two together and the cutting will grow flower and produce fruit like it would normally) a practice at the time condemned as unnatural. <– This info from Mendel in the Kitchen by Nina Fedoroff and Nancy Brown a great resource

***In fact, whenever you’re buying directly from a farmer, if you get a chance, ask about the breed of whatever you’re buying. More often than you’d expect there’s an interesting story about why he or she is growing that particular breed and where it came from.