Serendipity at Maize Genetics

posted in: Science | 26

While at the 2011 Maize Genetics Conference, the Biofortified Executive Editorial Team (Hey that spells BEET), aka Anastasia and I, talked about many of the awesome things that have made it onto the blog, and things that have not yet done so. One of the craziest things that I learned from a fellow graduate student while harvesting ears of corn in the field last fall were the Oat-Maize Addition Lines. People often frame their opinion of genetic engineering based upon the likelihood that some genetic phenomenon could happen on its own, by chance. So breeding within a species – that’s ok because that happens already. Moving octopus genes into primroses – maybe not so likely. Essentially, if it can happen through pollen then almost whatever genetic change you can think of in plants to some is all good. Actually “Organic” Breeding is based on that principle. So moving genes from corn plant to corn plant raises few people’s eyebrows. If you were to suggest moving a gene from a maize plant to an oat plant – then you might as well be breaking a fundamental law of nature.

What if you found out that maize can cross with oats? Ron Phillips, Regents Professor Emeritus at the University of Minnesota, gave a talk on parts of his career as a plant breeder, and he focused on the role of serendipity – of fortuitous chance events, in the life of a scientist. And one of his serendipitous discoveries was that you could, against all boundaries we humans apply to nature (in our minds), indeed cross maize with oats. So we grabbed him for an interview to talk about the amazing Oat-Maize Addition lines and more. The right person to explain these plants to everyone on video – right there for us to interview, how’s that for Serendipity?

So what do you think, is an Oat plant with one Maize chromosome a “GMO” or something else?

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Karl earned his Ph.D. in Plant Breeding and Plant Genetics at UW-Madison, with a minor in Life Science Communication. His dissertation was on both the genetics of sweet corn and plant genetics outreach. He recently moved back to his home state of California. His favorite produce might just be squash.