Happy birthday, Nazareno Strampelli

by Luigi Guarino on May 30, 2016

StrampelliPlease everyone run on over to Jeremy’s Eat This Podcast and listen to his masterly appreciation of the life and career of legendary Italian wheat breeder Nazareno Strampelli, The True Father of the First Green Revolution, on the 150th anniversary of his birthday.

Nazareno Strampelli, an Italian plant breeder, exactly foreshadowed Borlaug’s work by about four decades. His wheats doubled production in Italy and beyond and were crucial to the second green revolution ushered in by Borlaug. He was born on 29 May 1866, 150 years ago as I write this. He deserves to be better known (as do all plant breeders, actually).


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Potatoes at the Chelsea Flower Show, again

by Luigi Guarino on May 24, 2016

Nice to see agricultural biodiversity on display at the Chelsea Flower Show, in the form of potatoes, of all things. Scroll down past the very boring flowers to the very exciting tuber display. A similar — maybe the same? — display actually won a prize last year, which I can’t think how we missed.


The Adam and Eve of apples?

by Luigi Guarino on May 24, 2016

It was 1993 and US Department of Agriculture (USDA) horticulturist Phil Forsline flew over the magnificent mountain ranges of south-eastern Kazakhstan in a helicopter. Forsline had not been to the huge Central Asian country before; with the recent fall of the Soviet Union, this was his first chance to visit its wild forests. It was here, scientists now believe, that the ancestors of the apples sold in supermarkets around the globe originally evolved. Forsline was on a quest to find out what was really out there, in those mountain gardens.

The appearance on the BBC website of a long piece on the remarkable apple diversity of Kazakhstan and USDA’s efforts to conserve it, which leads with that mouth-watering paragraph above, reminded me that there was a much weirder little article a few weeks ago on much the same subject that I also wanted to point to. If only for the rhetorical flourishes it unleashes:

There are currently 7,500 varieties of apples in the world today — incredibly though, basically every single one of these can be traced back to a Mother and Father tree in a mysterious Kazakhstan forest.

In these Kazakh forests, bears, being the picky buggers that they are, would only pick and eat the sweetest apples.

Then they’d go and wander around poop everywhere and the seeds of these sweet, delicious apples were spread around.

Then humans cottoned on and were all “hey, sick apples, bears – we’re gonna eat and grow these to stuff in our mouths as well.”

Then we started only growing these apples which is why out of the thousands of apple varieties that originated from these forests, only 15 of them end up in our grocery stores.

So now, thanks to a group of scientists’ gene sequencing magic, we know that 90% of all apples can be traced back to a Mama and Papa tree thousands of years ago – that was most likely eaten by a bear and then pooped out all over the place.

Very cool.

Incidentally, those bear-filled apple forests have recently been formally recognized with the International Carlo Scarpa Prize for Gardens. And of course they’re not new to the attentions of the popular scientific press. And the not so popular, all due respect to Steppe magazine.

But what you really want to know is where that assertion that all apple varieties can be traced to two trees comes from. Well, so did I, and I asked around, including the apple people at USDA. Nearest I can figure it, it may be based on the fact that an oldish paper looking at the taxonomy of apples found a wild accession in the USDA collection that shared a bit of chloroplast genome with many domesticated varieties. According to the abstract:

Two matK duplications were found, one in series Malus and the other in most M. domestica cultivars and one Central Asian M. sieversii accession.

Here’s what that looks like, from a different paper by the same authors with fancier graphics.

Screen Shot 2016-05-24 at 10.09.14 AM

It’s all true about the bears though.

Over millions of years, millions of bears just prior to hibernation slowly and unconsciously selected the larger and sweeter fruits of the neo-apples. Bears do have a sweet tooth, as A. A. Milne noted in Winnie the Pooh. The relative inefficiency of a bear’s jaw in crushing fruit has another unintended consequence. As we have seen above, seeds that remain within the tissue (placenta) of the apple do not germinate. Herb Aldwinckle of Cornell University told me he has noticed that very small apples pass intact and uncrushed through a bear’s jaws and gut and, in one or two cases, were seen intact in the fecal mass. The seeds in the small intact fruits would not have germinated. It does not pay, in a genetic sense, to be a very small apple in the Tian Shan.

LATER: Oh, man, I forgot to link to Jeremy’s podcast.


Brainfood: Italian chickens, Maca genome, Ordonomics, AnGR, Stuffed potato, Biological control, Wild pea, Rice landraces

23 May 2016

Genetic variability of two Italian indigenous chicken breeds inferred from microsatellite marker analysis. Two Piedmontese breeds are closer to British breeds than other Italian or continental chickens. And poorly managed to boot. Genome of plant maca (Lepidium meyenii) illuminates genomic basis for high altitude adaptation in the central Andes. It’s the whole genome duplications, stupid. […]

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SOTWP Day 2: Useful plants, plant health and invasive plants

21 May 2016

Our friend Nora Castañeda summarizes the second and final day of Kew’s State of the World’s Plants Symposium. Here’s the first day if you missed it. Thanks again, Nora, and see you next year. The second day of the SOTWP Symposium was also organized in three sessions: Useful plants, plant health and invasive plants. Ann […]

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SOTWP Day 1: Climate change, protected areas and extinction risk

20 May 2016

In which our friend Nora Castañeda summarizes the first day of the State of the World’s Plants Symposium. The first day of the Kew symposium was divided in three sessions: climate change, protected areas and extinction risk. Dr Kay Havens from the Chicago Botanic Gardens opened the first session, presenting some of the responses that […]

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Baobabs and palms for sale

20 May 2016

Just a quick follow-up to my post a few days back on the Madrid botanical garden. There is a small shop at the entrance, and you can get some pretty weird plants there, like baobabs, for instance, of all things. Not, alas, any of the local grapes and olives on display within. Which seems like […]

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Blogging the state of our plants

20 May 2016

Our friend Nora Castañeda attended the State of the World’s Plants Symposium a couple of weeks back and was kind enough to send us some of her impressions. We’ll publish them in instalments over the next few days. Thanks, Nora. Last week, Kew organized and hosted the very first State of the World’s Plants Symposium. […]

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Finding a good home for teosinte

19 May 2016

Speaking of botanical gardens maintaining collections of crop diversity, this just in: A large collection of Teosinte seed was recently transferred from Duke University to the Missouri Botanical Garden Seed Bank. Teosinte is the wild ancestor to modern corn and the preservation of its genetic material is important to corn research and supports the long […]

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