A Time Capsule of Local Seeds

posted in: News, Science | 4
This giant chair at the Union South makes Frank seem very small.

A few weeks ago, the new student union at UW-Madison announced that they would be accepting contributions for a time capsule. To be assembled and sealed for the first birthday of the Union South’s grand opening, it would remain sealed until its 50th in 2061. I’ve been to the new Union many times with friends and fellow grad students for some R&R, so I was interested to make an entry. I thought, if I wanted to put something in a 49-year time capsule, what would it be?

Good time capsule contents are small, contain a lot of information, and represent the time period when they are sealed up. Naturally, as a plant geneticist, I thought that seeds would be perfect. Since I know a bunch of plant breeders, I decided to ask if any would be willing to contribute some seeds that they have bred?

The response was good, and before long I had three varieties each of beets and carrots, a new variety of oats, some mutant Medicago truncatula and rice, and also some special male-sterile onions. Finally, I included some sweet corn seeds that formed the basis of my thesis project. The contributing breeders were very willing and excited to participate – one packet of seeds was waiting for me by lunchtime on the first day, complete with answers to a list of questions I asked about the seeds, with a picture of the plants in the field!

So why put seeds in a time capsule? These seeds represent breeding efforts toward today’s goals. They also represented what each breeder thought was important about the breeding they do today, and for tomorrow.

The best available picture of these beets is a screenshot from one of my videos!

The beets were three new varieties – currently released for seed production and not yet available for farms or in stores. Called “Badger Torch,” “Badger Flame,” and “Badger Sunset,” they are red and yellow-striped, with an interesting pattern that makes them look like burning fire when you cut them open. These beets were bred to help meet the demand for brightly-colored vegetables, and beets are also lately gaining in popularity. One of the carrot varieties was also bred for purple color.

Some of the seeds also represented breeding for health. One carrot variety has extremely high levels of beta-carotene, and the oats were bred for high beta-glucan content. Beta-glucan has been shown to be good for your cholesterol levels. These oats will not be released until 2014, too!

Basic science was also represented. Besides my own seeds that have a unique genetic background that makes a difficult-to-phenotype gene easily identifiable, the mutant Medicago and Rice seeds were a great addition. They had defective copies of a gene called dmi3, which made them each unable to form associations with nitrogen-fixing soil bacteria and root-enhancing fungi, respectively. Understanding nitrogen fixation, and how to improve it, or even transfer it to new species will come from understanding mutants such as these. In 49 years, we may see fantastic applications of this research, and these seeds may harken back to a simpler time.

The seed packets in their jar, and a manilla folder with information about them

In some ways, however, sealing seeds in a time capsule for 50 years represents something that should not happen. The genes in these seeds will be frozen in time, unable to change as the world does around them. Breeders, however, thrive on change. Each new challenge of changing pest and disease patterns, weather and climate, and consumer and producer demands means new opportunities for recombining the genetics of plants. The sisters of these seeds will continue to be planted, bred, and improved. So in one sense the fact that these seeds will not change will make the future task of whomever opens the time capsule rather interesting. Included is some pedigree information about each variety, and they might be able to piece together the history of the breeding that has gone on since they were sealed in packets inside of a jar.

Finally, I included a cover letter to tell the story of this part of the time capsule, and why I thought it was important. On Monday, the brief ceremony took place and the capsule contents were gathered together to be sealed up until 2061. I was the first person called up to add my capsule entry, and I was asked to give an off-the-cuff description of the seeds with a bunch of cameras pointed at my face. When and if this becomes available online, I’ll be sure to post it here. For now, here is my cover letter, which will be the first thing someone sees when they open the packet in 2061:

2012 Wisconsin Seeds

Plant breeding is one of the pillars that holds up strong agricultural production and quality here in Wisconsin, and beyond. For my entry, I have put together a collection of packets of vegetable, grain, and forage seeds bred here at UW-Madison by plant breeders and graduate students. I want to give people 49 years from now a glimpse of what plant breeders at this university were studying and developing. Over time, these varieties will change as farmers and breeders continue to improve upon them, and 50 years from now it may be neat to look back on what we had in 2012.

Included among the packets of seeds are:

Newly released “Badger Torch,” “Badger Flame,” and “Badger Sunset” beets,

“Betagene” High Beta-Glucan oats – soon to be released,

3 Carrot varieties from a colorful carrot breeding program,

Medicago (similar to alfalfa) and rice seeds mutant for a gene involved in symbiosis with soil bacteria and fungi,

Special male-sterile onions,

And sweet corn seeds used to understand what makes the corn so sweet!

Each packet of seeds comes with information about the varieties for whoever opens the time capsule in 2061. Contributors were asked to answer the following questions:

1. What is the name of the variety/accession?
2. Who developed it (and when)?
3. How was it developed?
4. What is special, important, or interesting about these seeds?
5. What else should someone 50 years from now know about these seeds?
6. A picture of what the plants should look like if someone wants to grow them (and if they still grow)!

This was followed by a brief personal note to whomever should be lucky to open the time capsule and be presented with these seeds. I had a couple questions for them to think about, and guide them as they dig into this capsule. These words, however, will be sealed along with the seeds, not to be seen again for 49 years. Maybe our blog will still be around then, and they will find this post and tell us about what they found? I think there may be something in the envelope that might lead them here, too.

Frank slips a secret of his own into the seed information packet!
Follow Karl Haro von Mogel:

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.