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Seed breeding has seen a quantum leap

Brent Murphree DFP25-seedplots-brentmurphree.JPG
Cotton seed variety plots in the Western U.S.
I don’t think sci-fi writers could have imagined the changes that are now commonplace in plant breeding.

I've always been fascinated by plant breeding. At the age of nine I learned about how insects pollinated flowers for a 4-H entomology project.  

Visions of freakish plants with which I could impress friends and family filled my head. Most of my fiddling around ended when my short attention span went on to different, shinier things. 

Dad managed the university demonstration farm just north of our place. Cotton breeders spent days in the field hunched over making crosses hoping to find one they could use in commercial production. 

That activity soon moved over to our place when several companies approached Dad because they wanted more land for their research.  We ended up with breeding plots for three different seed companies and housing a regional seed nursery on our place. 

It was an exciting time. Transgenic cotton was in the early development stage and at one point we had to have security on the farm in case an anti-transgenic warrior decided to do some damage to the facility. 

Through various sources I had access to some old conventional cotton varieties I planted on the side of my house and tried to cross. I had seed from native wild cotton, a purple-leafed variety from China, colored cotton from a failed commercial enterprise and a couple old traditional varieties someone gave me from their desk drawer. 

I never even got close to evaluating anything I grew, but it was fun before, once again, I found something shinier to do.  

When I worked for the national cotton organizations, I was able to get into research plots from California to the Carolinas. It has been fun to hear about the new developments and some of the fine tuning of new varieties. 

With each new development – herbicide tolerance, additional Bt genes, lygus and thrips protection – it has been like seeing a new car go on the market and being privy to all the new features. 

A couple of years ago I got into the middle of a discussion on disease resistance in cotton when the fungus Fusarium oxysporum f. sp. Vasinfectum was discovered in a field in the El Paso Valley. It was nice because I could maintain a fluid conversation and even write an article about the subject while understanding what the Ph.D.s were saying. 

It has been amazing to experience the quantum change in plant science that has taken place in the last 30 years – transgenics, CRISPR. I don't think sci-fi writers could have imagined the changes that are now commonplace in plant breeding. 

Most of all I like the characters I've met in the field. Guys like Larry Burdett and Carl Feaster who are no longer with us. Fred Bourland, Jeff Klingenberg, Jinfa Zhang, Jim Olvey and many others are still out there on the hot days, hunched over, making crosses. 

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