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

October 14, 2009

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.

June 11, 2008

Graduation and Iowa City

Filed under: Recreational Travel — Tags: , , , , , — James @ 11:09 am

Lots of exciting stuff happening. Graduating. Doing the thousand mile drive for the ninth and likely final time. (Though I’ll be driving twice as far to reach California in the fall, the impossibility of doing the drive in one day, combined with ever rising price of gas makes it unlikely I’ll drive back for breaks). Carpooling out to Iowa City to celebrate a friend’s birthday.


Graduation was good. The actually ceremony took place out at the football stadium and where I sat, unable to see who was speaking over heads of hundreds of my classmates, watching the heat ripples rise from our black robes. My parents came out and I was able to at least point myself out to them during the procession in by calling on my cell phone. (Makes you wonder how people managed before every college student and their parents had a cell phone).

Visit to Iowa City:

-Almost didn’t make it as flooding was shutting down major roads out of town.
–Estimates of this fall’s harvest all already being reduced as a result of the constant rain.

-William is 22!

-Red Velvet Cake Shakes at the Hamburg Inn #2.
–Possibly the best form of food discovered by mankind to date
–The Hamburg Inn is one of the places presidential candidates always visit in the run up to the Iowa caucus. I sat under a picture from John Edwards’ visit.

-Disk Golf
–Surprisingly fun
–I’m surprisingly bad at it 😉
–Continued to play since I’ve returned home

On monday I started a two week course on bioinformatics and computational biology…will update on this over the weekend…

April 29, 2008

Cornell Pictures on Flickr

Filed under: Campus Life — Tags: , , — James @ 8:15 pm

After all the time I spent taking pictures of the campuses where I interviewed, I thought it’d only be fair to put up pictures of my alma mater (can I call it that yet, or do I have to wait until I ACTUALLY graduate?) Anyway, my timing worked out well and I got to document the campus on the best spring day I can remember from the past four years. Of course it had to happen a few weeks before I left for home, and thence to grad school. I think I’ve talked to everyone who reads this already, but if we haven’t talked in the last few weeks, I finally decided to accept the offer of UC-Berkeley’s plant biology program. For a summary of my visit to Berkeley, see Arriving in Berkeley, Another Day of 1000 interviews, Second Night … In Berkeley and Wrap up in Berkeley. This weekend I’ll be flying back home to be best man at the wedding of a good friend of mine. There may or may not be pictures afterwards. But here are a couple of examples of Cornell in the springtime (for more pictures you can either click on these pictures, or the thumbnail pictures on the right hand menu to visit my flickr account):
Blooming Tree by Uris
What Spring Should Look Like
And this isn’t really a cornell specific picture, but it’s a Cobra Lilly, and that’s just cool!:
Cobra Lilly

March 17, 2008

Dragon Day

Filed under: Campus Life — Tags: , , , — James @ 3:39 pm

Last Friday was dragon day on campus. So I thought I’d post a pointer to my new pictures on Flickr. What is dragon day? Basically it’s a way for students to blow off steam the day before Spring Break. The first year art students stay up all night building a dragon, which they then parade through campus accompanied by lots of students in costumes, finally burning the dragon in the middle of the Arts Quad. Meanwhile the rest of us, except the Engineering students, line the street and cheer as the dragon goes up in flames. The reason the Engineering students aren’t there to cheer is that they’re building a separate Phoenix as a challenge to the Art students. The Phoenix is very hit or miss, but this year it was a definite success.The Phoenix 

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