The Seed Ambassadors Project

Bringing Biodiversity Back

Tag: Plant Breeding (page 1 of 2)

Cell Fusion Hybrid Seed is Creepy

Cell fusion CMS is truly anti-evolutionary and is contributing dramatically to the the loss of agricultural biodiversity in the seed industry, as the genes cannot be recovered from cell fusion CMS hybrids.

Recently I have been asked by several farmers and seed savers to write up a little something about a technology few people know about that is becoming more and more prevalent in our food system. When I bring it up in passing everyone seems to want to know more and their first question is often, “Why have I never heard of this?”  After discussing it with many other organic farmers a question I always get is, “Is that illegal for organic farming?” I answer by saying “No, not yet at least.” And then predictably they say, “Well, it shouldn’t be allowed.”

Chicory Flower

Chicory Flower

This technology has been called “cell fusion CMS” and it is used to create male-sterile breeding lines, which are then used to create many common F1 hybrid seed varieties. These hybrid varieties are found in many seed catalogs and including many hybrid cabbage, broccoli and interestingly Belgian endive among other crops.  The technology has been around for the last few decades and is sometimes called hybrid seed from protoplast fusion cytoplasmic male sterility (CMS). I  have nicknamed it “transgeneric cybrid seed.”  It is a kind of a biotech revision of a naturally occurring breeding technique that now straddles the border of genetic engineering. I said revision because some cytoplasmic male sterility can occur naturally – but cell fusion CMS does not occur naturally.

In organic agriculture, GMOs are of course expressly forbidden. I was confused whether this cell fusion CMS technology was GMO or not so I looked up the definition in the IFOAM Standards. IFOAM is the International Federation of Organic Agriculture Movements and they say:

“Genetic engineering is a set of techniques from molecular biology (such as recombinant DNA) by which the genetic material of plants, animals, microorganisms, cells and other biological units are altered in ways or with results that could not be obtained by methods of natural mating and reproduction or natural recombination. Techniques of genetic engineering include, but are not limited to: recombinant DNA, cell fusion, micro and macro injection, encapsulation.”

So by international organic certification standards cell fusion is considered GM, but not necessarily in the United States or in many other countries that disregard the IFOAM standards.  Maybe we all should just start calling it a GMO and have some actual parity in organic standards.  I will now try and explain how it works with as little jargon as possible.

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Bingenheimer part two: effects of musical notes on dandelions?

Bingenheimer’s resident plant breeder, Ute Kirchgaesser, is on to something. Really, she’s probably on to many things, but to describe them all would take a book and I only have one blog posting.

Ute has what equates to a master’s degree in horticulture, but her German title sounds much better; Meistergartnerin. She got her start in plant breeding with a family run seed company where she learned the basics of traditional plant breeding, and has combined that knowledge with a more esoteric knowledge of an anthroposophical kind. All of these experiences combine to make her something more like and Ubermeistergarternerin if you ask me. But if you ask her, she is just a vegetable breeder.

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Ute is working on developing a summer fennel. She is in the process of improving some leek varieties, and also is working to re-invigorate some old kales. She is in charge of the on-site seed production for Bingenheimer’s catalog. And she is also working on a project that even she can’t explain.

In 2002, she began to study what effect musical intervals have on plants. Previous studies have been done that show that plants respond well to classical music, and not so well to death metal. Ute wanted to know if a particular sequence of notes effects plants more than another, and she wanted to know if this effect can be seen in subsequent generations. She set up a research project working with some lettuces, which she surmised would show results quickly due to their rapid growth.

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Bingenheimer part one: arival

We left Greifswald for Bingenheimer Saatgut AG, the largest biodynamic seed company in Germany, Leaving super extra early on Tuesday morning, we traveled via “Mitfahrgelegenheit” through Berlin and on down to a small town northeast of Frankfurt. “Mitfahrgelegenheit” is the musical word for ‘organized rideshare’, and there are several websites that one can use to post rides wanted or rides offered. People in the US use Craigslist for this purpose, but in Germany the practice is more widespread and therefore more effective. Mitfahrgelegenheit costs about half as much as a train and can get you there twice as fast, and it is a good way to meet people. Since we traveled so far, we pieced together two rides and had a few hours to hang out in Berlin. We were delivered to the door of Bingenheimer, 13 hours after the start of our journey – not really twice as fast as the train but still half the cost!

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We stayed, worked and learned with the kind folks at Bingenheimer for three work days, from Wednesday through Friday. This was our first visit with a seed company, and we learned a lot and had a really good time. Andrew was in heaven being surrounded by so many seeds, and the sense of community there really impressed me. But these are just two of the indicators that Bingenheimer Saatgut AG is not your average seed company. It is primarily Biodynamic. It is the hub for a network of 30 Biodynamic vegetable breeders in Germany. It was once part of and is still affiliated with the Lebensgemeinschaft Bingenheimer, a Camphill-esque community that fully integrates people with developmental disabilities into the tasks of daily life. As such, the Saatgut Werkstatt (seed workshop) is one of five workshops that employ disabled people in the community; they also rotate through candle making, woodworking, ceramics, and weaving workshops. Additionally, some of them work on the biodynamic dairy farm and others in the gardens, helping to grow food for the community and seed for the seed company.

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Russia Part 3: VIR Tour and a Bronze Medal

The Vavilov Institute is located in two beautiful old buildings in the main part of St. Petersberg. We were told that the government does not believe the Institute needs to be located on such prime real estate (right next to the Hotel Astoria and other big-money hotels), and so they do not provide them with the funds to maintain the buildings.

Some of the space of at least one of the buildings is rented out to other businesses and this building, which houses the herbarium and some of the gene bank, as well as many offices, is in the course of renovation — the outside is complete but the inside has far to go. This is the building that we spent most of our time in — it houses Sergey’s office.

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Left: Sergey Alexanian, our great host. Right: One of many Vavilov Statues.

We had the opportunity, though, to walk across a great traffic circle (the “backyard”) to the Institute’s building on the other side. This building was initially designed to be apartments for nobility (200+ years ago), and some of the interiors were reminiscent of the Hermitage, with gold plating on the walls and frescoes in the halls, and ornately carved ceilings throughout. This is where the Director of the Institute’s office lies, and also where the private Vavilov Museum is located. There are also two great halls capable of hosting at least 100 people for conferences and the like, and also many other offices that we did not see. Our tour of this building began with a walk around to see some of the more impressive rooms mentioned above.

Next we went to the private Vavilov Museum, which consists of several exhibits detailing the achievements of Vavilov as well as those of the Institute. There are maps depicting Vavilov’s Centers of Origin, and maps that show where he himself went on collecting missions over a 20-year period from the 19teens to 1940. The most impressive map, though, is the one that details all of the collecting missions that have been carried out by all staff of the Vavilov Institute over the past 100 years – this map is nearly all marked up, except for locations that are very far north. This is especially impressive when one considers the political situation with Russia for most of that time, and the financial situation now.

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Photos from left to right: Sergey giving us the museum tour, books in Vavilov’s study, map of the institute’s collection missions, N.I. Vavilov.

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Russia Part 2: Herbarium and Legumes

On Wednesday we had the pleasure of taking a tour of parts of the Vavilov Institute. The first stop on our tour was the Herbarium. An herbarium is a collection of preserved samples of plants or plant parts, usually pressed on sheets of paper, for scientists and researchers to view. The herbarium at the Vavilov Institute is home to over 200,000 such samples, collected by Vavilov himself and other scientists on collection missions throughout the world. It was once one of the preeminent herbariums in the world, but now the largest herbariums in France and England house over seven million specimens!

We were very excited to see the herbarium, but also a bit surprised at its condition. Everything was very clean and well organized, but it seemed that funds were deemed to be more useful elsewhere, as the lights were off and the room was lit through the open curtains only (this could be better for the specimens). There was no climate control, and the cabinets and boxes used to store the specimens were quite antique looking. Many aspects of the Vavilov Institute seem to be straight from another time, and the herbarium was no exception.

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Left: Preparing seeds to give to VIR. Right: The Vavilov Institute.

There were a few people working in the room, examining specimens at their leisure. The coordinator took a few minutes to show us some samples that are kept out as examples of the layout of different types of plants. We viewed samples of a grass and a tree, and observed how they were filed according to species in boxes stacked in row after row of tall wood cherry wood cabinets. One of the samples had the signiture of Vavilov on it — this was a sample that he had actually collected! After sufficient oohs and aahs, we walked down to the office of one of the scientists.

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Left: Sergey showing us the the Herbarium collection. Right: A specimen collected by N.I. Vavilov in the 1920’s.

We were quite happy to meet the Director of Legumes, Dr. Margarita Vishnyakova. In her office we found petrie dishes with examples of the different species of beans and peas, and a large case filled with different fava bean (Vicia faba) varieties. On her wall were two mosaics made from beans, and on shelves around were giant pods from leguminous trees and branches from different leguminous plants.

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Land of Latvia

Latvia for new year’s eve was a bit more drunken than our other new year’s spent traveling, when we were in Malaysia (2003-04). A few thousand people gathered under the Freedom Monument in the central part of Riga, danced in the street to pop music courtesy of a live DJ, and oohed and aahed at fireworks exploding directly overhead, closer than I have ever seen them. We were in Latvia for about five days, but most of this time was New Year’s holiday celebrations, and so our opportunities for meeting with seed related contacts were minimal.

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Photos Left to right: Powerful statues outside the Latvian Occupation Museum, Beautiful Old town Riga, The liberty Statue (where people where once thrown in jail for putting flowers at its base).

Our first impressions of Latvia seemed to indicate that this country was much more economically developed/ “successful” than Lithuania, judging only by superficial views of the size and glitz of Riga compared to Vilnius, the amount of English speakers, and the general cosmopolitan feel of the city. Because of these opinions, we were expecting the Organic scene here to be more mature than in Lithuania, but we learned that in many ways Latvia is on par with Lithuania, and in some ways has further to go in developing organic agriculture, seeds, and markets.

We had the luck of arranging a last-minute visit with Dr. Livija Zarina of the Priekuli Plant Breeding Institute, about a two hour bus ride north east of Riga. The work at the Institute, whose logo is a potato flower, is focused almost entirely on field crops. The state institute of Priekuli owns 286 hectares and grows on an additional 100 hectares rented from neighbors. The six departments at Priekuli include potato, barley, tritcale and rye breeding programs, agrotechologies, seed production of field crops, and a tissue culture lab. They have also managed a small organic experimental field for many years now, which Dr. Zarina counts as one very important aspect of Priekuli, “We are really rich. Not many places have this, but in ours, it exists.”

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Photos right to left: Dr. Zarina our host at the Plant Breeding Station, A beautiful Potato flower for a logo, Display of their pea breeding accomplishments, Short term seed storage, Latvia’s main organic certification office.

Dr. Zarina is the Head of the Agrotechnology Department, and her work is focused mostly on canola. She is also involved in an intensive study that, for at least the past ten years, has been trying to establish a system of crop rotation that is beneficial for fertility needs of organic production of Latvia’s main field crops of rape, rye, barley, peas, and a few others. The experiments are evaluating six fertilizing schemes and soil management practices with 11 different crop rotations.

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