Three revolutions . . .

My former colleague, Bob Zeigler, Director General of the International Rice Research Institute (IRRI) in the Philippines, has often spoken of the ‘three revolutions’ that have dramatically transformed the way we develop new crops to feed a hungry world.

So what are they?

Simply, these are the revolutions in:

  • Molecular biology
  • Computer technology and informatics
  • Telecommunications

dnaIt’s 60 years since the structure of DNA was elucidated by Watson and Crick, for which they and Maurice Wilkins were awarded the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine in 1962. But just think how far we’ve come in just the last decade. The human genome was deciphered in 2003, and the rice genome in 2004 (although drafts of both were available earlier). And since then, there has been an ‘explosion’ of genomic data for many different crops that is throwing new light on gene function and control, and facilitating the use of genetic resources for crop improvement. You only have to think back to the early 1980s when we were making the first stabs at studying diversity at the molecular level, using isozymes and subsequently a whole range of molecular markers. These have become increasingly sophisticated such that it’s now possible to detect differences (known as polymorphisms) at the individual nucleotide (A-T-C-G) level. Where will molecular biology take us? Hardly a day passes without some new DNA revelation, or use of DNA in forensics. Most recently, analysis of DNA was used to verify the identity of a skeleton (of King Richard III it turns out, died 1485 at the Battle of Bosworth) unearthed in a car park in Leicester in the English Midlands. And on the rice front, discovery of genes for submergence tolerance (the so-called SUB1 varieties) and phosphorus uptake are helping rice breeders respond to the challenges of climate change.

At the same time, molecular studies have generated petabytes of data. Fortunately, developments in computer technology and data storage have not only enabled scientists to contemplate handling such vast amounts of data but analytical tools can be run even on the humble PC.

And thirdly, where would we be today without rapid and easy communication almost anywhere in the world? Rapid advances in telecommunications and development of the Internet not only permit easy exchange of data between collaborators, but also collaboration in real time between researchers at different locations.

However, just think back a decade or less. Today we take the Internet, broadband, smart phones and related technologies for granted. We chat across countries and time zones on Skype. Geographical Information Systems (GIS) help us make sense of complex spatial patterns (see this set of interesting mapping interpretations) and statistics combined with the latest computer graphics unlocks a new perspective on global health issues (as explained by Professor Hans Rosling of the Karolinska Institute in Sweden in a video).

When I joined IRRI in July 1991, I had to almost beg for a PC on my desk – and email was quite basic. The then Deputy Director General – Research, Ken Fischer, actually questioned whether every member of staff would need a PC. And color monitors were not even allowed – for a few years at least! How could we manage without email (or the Internet) these days?Access to email has been essential for managing the publication of our latest book on plant genetic resources and climate change (as has use of search engines like Google to verify all the scientific publications cited in each chapter). Incidentally several of the chapters explain just how molecular biology has advanced the use of germplasm for crop improvement. The cover of the new book illustrates the obvious advantage of the submergence tolerant SUB1 rice varieties (the healthy plots!).

But email has changed how we do business, and in the case of international agricultural research, it’s made some donors quite dysfunctional. In the past (a decade or more ago) when we had to rely more on ‘snail mail’, calls for research proposals were sent out in good time. Nowadays, everyone is expected to respond immediately. It’s not uncommon for some donors to expect a response almost by return, even though they have cut the lead time. On the other hand, meeting deadlines has been eased somewhat by online submission, rather than having to run the vagaries of postal services worldwide.

I remember when I was working in Costa Rica in the 1970s, I would set my annual work program with my bosses in Lima, and then they’d let me get on with it. No constant harassing by email or phone. If I wanted to get in touch with anyone in Lima ‘quickly’, I had to use telex (does anyone use telex any more?), or book an international phone call a couple of days in advance. Now we take it for granted that we can contact anyone, anywhere, and at any time. But do I want a smart phone? Not really. I’m quite happy with ‘old’ mobile technology, and not being able to read emails on my phone.

Of course, the positives outweigh most, if not all, of the negatives. Modern telecommunications mean that I can talk with my grandchildren in Minnesota and Newcastle upon Tyne by Skype every week. And it’s also amazing how quickly these youngsters are picking up on technology – outsmarting the smart phones.

Where will it all lead? Who knows? I don’t think as little as a decade ago we could have predicted with any certainty just how rapidly advances would be made in molecular biology, computer technology, and telecommunications. The next decade is going to be stupendous.

A Friday morning in February . . .

Fit for purpose?
Last Friday was just a normal sort of day – almost. We had respite from the blustery (and snowy) weather of a few days previously. So I decided to head off to the public library in town, as one of my recent reads was almost due for return.

Fitbit Ultra

Fitbit Ultra

As I got ready to leave, I went to clip my Fitbit monitor on to my trouser pocket. Fitbit monitor? Well, this is a really interesting gizmo that Hannah and Michael gave me for Christmas 2011. It’s an activity tracker, with WiFi connection to the computer. But there’s also a docking station for recharging the battery and also to synchronize the tracker with an online log. I can see how many miles I’ve walked, steps taken, stairs climbed, or calories expended.

Well, I assumed that the Fitbit was on the docking station, but as I reached for it – and discovered it was not there – I suddenly realized that it had been attached to my other trousers. And they’d been in the washing machine for 20 minutes already! What to do? We contemplated stopping the machine but, mid-cycle, that was easier said than done. So, feeling rather annoyed with myself (after all I had only just started to wear the Fitbit throughout the day, and left it attached to my trousers), I left the house.

However, much to my surprise when I returned, I found the Fitbit still showing signs of life. Amazing! Even the correct time. When I connected it to the docking station, it synchronized as normal. Checking my log I saw that it had registered a period of about 35 minutes of intense activity. Must have been one of the spin cycles.

Later on, I thought it had well and truly ‘died’ on me. However, I left it in a warm place overnight, and what ever moisture got inside was removed, and it seems to be working normally. However the battery does seem to be discharging a little faster than before. This is generally not a problem, however. We went on a two hour walk this morning, and it had discharged about two-thirds only. A quick recharge, and I’m in business once again.

Maybe I should contact Fitbit and offer to test other models. As one of my Facebook friends suggested I could put it in the washing machine just on spin cycle, and lounge about on the sofa, confident that it would log many minutes of activity. So much for soothing my conscience.

Cave canem – part two
In an earlier post, I described my love-hate relationship with dogs (mostly love, I hasten to say). I guess it’s irresponsible dog-owners who bug me.

Anyway, on Friday last, I’d not gone more than about 150 m from home, when I passed a man – a total stranger – who stopped and said: ‘I owe you an apology’.

Needless to say, I was a little bemused, and I guess my face must have shown it. ‘Do you?’, I replied. ‘Why?’

And he went on to explain that some weeks previously he had been walking his dog (not very far from where we stopped to talk), and as I had passed by on the pavement, his dog (a small terrier of some sort) had lunged at me, snarling. Fortunately it was on a leash, and its owner – this stranger – pulled it away. I didn’t say anything  but after I walked by, I slowly shook my head from side-to-side. Which elicited a rather cursory and sarcastic comment from the dog’s owner. I still didn’t say anything, but just walked on.

And so the man I’d met on Friday wanted to apologize for his behavior – which I accepted of course – and explained that although he was having a bad morning when the incident happened, that was no excuse for his rudeness. He apparently had gone home and told his wife, and it had played on his mind ever since  Now he had opportunity to make amends, and clear his conscience. Apparently he was recovering from a heart attack and triple bypass, and on the morning I encountered him and his pooch, things weren’t going too well. Even so, he reiterated, that was NO excuse for what he’d shouted after me. I had become the brunt of his being out of sorts.

There’s still decency in folks yet!

But why do some dogs go for me? Maybe they sense my ‘worry’. I have to admit that I am wary around dogs that I don’t know (comes from living overseas where rabies was common), and I do get annoyed when dogs are not kept under control as they should be. Another Facebook friend suggested that perhaps they ‘smell’ my greater love for cats. Anyway, dogs do have extraordinary abilities.

Recently, a friend of mine, Ruth, who lives in Rome, lost one of her dogs. In a lovely tribute to her Lula, Ruth described the rather interesting behavior of her other dog, a terrier called Morgan – The Morgster, after Lula’s ashes were brought home. Read all about Lula and Morgan here. What do you think?

Guitar heroes

Life has been pretty good to me – most of the time. I’ve achieved many of the things I wanted. There are more places to visit, of course, and hopefully I can begin to knock some of these off my list year by year.

But as I reflect on things, there aren’t many that I wish I had done. Except one.

I wish I’d learnt to play the guitar.

Well, I can almost hear you screaming at the screen ‘Go on, there’s still time’. And being retired I guess I do have (in theory) time on my hands. But frankly, I don’t really have the aptitude – nor the patience.

The guitar was – and continues to be – such a democratic instrument. How many thousands of young men got hold of a guitar in the 50s and 60s, learnt a few chords, and escaped from their quite humble backgrounds? And that continues today, although I have to confess that my music appreciation somewhat atrophied in the 1980s and earlier. My elder brother Ed was given a guitar in the late 1950s, and although he did master sufficient chords for us to play skiffle, I’m not sure how proficient he really did become.

But I love listening to guitar music. So here are some of my ‘guitar heroes’ (who seem to be about my age!) and some favourite tracks (sorry about the adverts on the YouTube clips).

Mark Knopfler
Here’s a young Mark playing Sultans of Swing, that Dire Straits classic, in a 1978 Old Grey Whistle Test appearance on the BBC.

I saw him in concert at Birmingham’s LG Arena in May 2010, just after I’d returned to the UK after retiring from IRRI. What a concert! Mark has moved away from a purely rock focus, evoking a broader folk and country base to much of his current music-making. But whenever you listen to a Mark Knopfler song/tune, there’s no mistaking it. He has a way of introducing refrains into the melody that are just so typical. Listen to this track (just click the title) Cleaning My Gun – you’ll hear what I mean. But Whoop de Doo is perhaps an even better example.

Lyndsey Buckingham
What more can I say? One fifth (one quarter now) of Fleetwood Mac, his guitar playing is truly inspirational. And his song writing is not bad either. Taken from the 1977 classic album Rumours, this has to be my favourite track: Go Your Own Way, filmed during their 1997 The Dance reunion concert:

I saw Fleetwood Mac in concert in St Paul, MN in 2003. Pity that Christine McVie had already left the band by then, but a night to remember. Read an earlier post about Fleetwood Mac.

Eric Clapton
When has Eric Clapton not been around. It’s said that Clapton became a superstar when he found his voice, when he had the confidence to believe in his own abilities as a musician and singer. Hard to choose a favourite track, but this comes pretty high up – Cocaine:

David Gilmour
I’m a big Pink Floyd fan, and it never ceases to amaze me how Gilmour’s musicianship added so much depth to PF songs. The track Comfortably Numb demonstrates just what I mean; sadly no longer available on YouTube from the Live 8 concert.

Of course, there are others I could also include in my top list: George Harrison, Jeff Lynne (and also read this recent post), Brian May (Queen’s The Show Must Go On with the inimitable Freddie Mercury), Tom Petty (Free Fallin’), Joe Walsh (he’s riffing in the background on this Eagles track, Life In The Fast Lane), and Carlos Santana (Samba Pa’ Ti). I never was a Jimi Hendrix fan (although I can appreciate his musicianship). And George Harrison, Jeff Lynne, and Tom Petty came together in the wonderful Traveling Wilburys (with Bob Dylan and the late Roy Orbison).

On the other hand, the outstanding folk/blues duo of the late Bert Jansch and John Renbourn (both of Pentangle fame) have to be on my list, somewhere. Ed had the vinyl LP Bert and John, released in 1966, which unfortunately was stolen from me when I lived in Costa Rica in the 1970s. I now have it as the CD After the Dance, released in 1992. But which of the great 15 tracks to single out? I think it has to be Goodbye Pork Pie Hat.

Here’s Rolling Stone’s take on the 100 Greatest Guitarists.

On the classical side, I very much admire John Williams. You would enjoy this CD (Sony SK 53 359), The Seville Concert, recorded in the Royal Alcázar Palace. And it includes Rodrigo’s Concierto de Aranjuez. There’s quite a lot of music out there, originally composed for the lute, and now transcribed for the guitar.

Insalata mista – taxonomy in action

I’m not very good at identifying wild flowers. Now I suppose that’s a bit of a confession for someone who studied botany. But I know how to identify plants I don’t know by using the appropriate flora and keys.

Funnily enough my interest in natural history began with my bird-watching hobby (that I continue intermittently). And I’ve always been able to identify British birds quite easily – provided I get a good look to see any identifying marks. So I’m not sure why my brain isn’t wired up to do the same with plants. I’m always having to ask my wife what the plants are growing in our garden.

I even taught a level 2 course on flowering plant taxonomy when I worked at the University of Birmingham. However, I was much more interested in the evolutionary forces that shaped the variation in the plants around us: genetics, ecology, and reproductive biology among others. That’s how I came to get involved in the field of plant genetic resources and their conservation and use for much of my career.

Professor Vernon Heywood

As an undergraduate at Southampton University in the late 60s, I’d sat in on a course of about 20 lectures on flowering plant taxonomy given by Prof. Vernon Heywood from the University of Reading. Les Watson, the department’s own taxonomist had emigrated to Australia at the end of my second year in 1969, and Prof. Heywood filled the ‘taxonomic gap’ in our botanical perspectives, coming down from Reading once a week for 10 weeks. As it turned out, the taxonomy component wasn’t a requirement for my course in Environmental Botany and Geography, and I wasn’t examined on this. I just felt that it was too good an opportunity to miss.

I didn’t meet Prof Heywood again for more than 20 years. In April 1991 I had already signed a contract to join IRRI in the Philippines from July that year, leaving my position at the University of Birmingham. As the incoming head of IRRI’s Genetic Resources Center, IRRI’s management asked me to attend a meeting of the FAO Commission on Plant Genetic Resources for Food and Agriculture in Rome. I think Heywood was there in his capacity as a representative of IUCN or some other international organization. Anyway, we got chatting and agreed to meet for dinner one evening at one of his favourite restaurants near the Via Venetto. We had a wonderful dinner, washed down with copious quantities of a new wine for me – a Sicilian red Corvo (Duca di Salaparuta), and a discussion of the taxonomic complexities of an Italian insalata mista!

When you think about it, almost every meal we eat is a cornucopia of taxonomic and evolutionary history. Those potatoes to which you just added another knob of butter, how far removed are they from the native potatoes of South America, and which wild species were used to breed disease and pest resistance? How many varieties of cauliflower are grown in commerce compared to what farmers have grown for centuries? Where did the sweet potato originate and how was it transported – and when – into Polynesia? I could go on and on. That’s the joy of plant genetic resources – understanding the origins and evolution of the food plants that keep us alive, and how all that genetic potential must be conserved and used for the benefit of all.

Amazing what ideas a humble salad can bring to the surface!

100 posts . . . and still counting

I opened this blog on 1 February last year, and since then I’ve been waxing lyrical on anything that took my fancy. I’d actually been experimenting with some blog ideas since September 2011, but it wasn’t until early last year – with some encouragement from my two daughters – that I decided to blog in a serious way.

And this is my 100th post! Anyone who has followed my blog from the beginning will have seen what an eclectic mixture of stories I have posted. While many of the posts have something to do with my 40-year career in international agricultural research, I’ve also posted stories on news items that grabbed my attention and many of the places Steph and I have visited as members of the National Trust.

It’s been fun to combine my own memories and stories with information that I can link to on the web (Wikipedia is a useful resource in this respect)  and it’s not always necessary to fill in so many details when these can be sourced elsewhere. Then there are the photos and videos I’ve taken and posted, as well as links to videos on YouTube. An image or a video is certainly worth a thousand words.

And because I get a daily summary of blog statistics, it’s also fun to see which stories have attracted the most attention, what search terms have directed visitors to my blog, and in which countries my blog has generated most interest.

These are the top five posts that have been viewed over the past year, apart from the home page and my bio:

  1. Potatoes – the real treasure of the Incas . . .
  2. Norman Borlaug – tireless advocate of research for development
  3. MI5 spied on Charlie Chaplin after FBI asked for help to banish him from the US (this was a link to a news item that appeared in The Guardian on 17 February last year)
  4. Anilao: jewel in the Philippines diving crown
  5. The Beatles, Lonnie, and me

And my readers come from these countries:

I’ve also found it interesting that there are, apparently, quite a few recipients of an award from Her Majesty The Queen, who will attend an investiture at Buckingham Palace (just as I did in February last year) and are not sure what to wear. I hope my two posts helped them out:

I don’t see myself running out of stories to post soon. It’s just finding the time – and the inspiration to sit down and hit the keyboard. I hope you have enjoyed the stories I’ve posted so far. Here’s to the second year and the next 100!

Tikal – may the force be with you

July/August 1977 (so long ago I don’t remember exactly). Destination: Guatemala.

My work with the International Potato Center (CIP) in Central America took me to Guatemala quite frequently between 1976 and 1980. We supported the Instituto de Ciencia y Tecnología Agrícolas – ICTA in seed production and post harvest storage of potatoes.

Guatemala is a beautiful and fascinating country, and has a large indigenous population (unlike Costa Rica where we lived at the time). However, more of that to come in another story.

Steph travelled with me only occasionally, but in 1997 I’d planned a trip to Guatemala (visiting Quetzaltenango) and Mexico, and returning to Costa Rica with a short stop in San Pedro Sula in Honduras to stay with John and Marion Vessey (who were the witnesses at our wedding in Lima in 1973). After leaving CIP in 1974, John had joined CIMMYT in Mexico for a couple of years, before moving on to United Fruit and carrying out research on banana diseases.

And during this work visit to Guatemala it was too good an opportunity not to miss out on a visit to the Mayan ruins of Tikal, deep in the jungle of the Department of El Petén, about 190 miles by air due north of Guatemala City.


We decided on a two-day visit to Tikal, arriving early the first day, and departing in the middle of the afternoon on the second. I guess the flight (on an old Aviateca DC3 or similar) took less than an hour, landing on the rough strip not far from the Tikal ruins park.

Buses took us to the Jungle Inn where we would stay – basically bamboo huts, rather rudimentary, but adequate for just one night (but has certainly gone up-market in recent years). From there it was a short walk through the forest into the ruins.

1977-07 Tikal 01

At first there was not a lot to see, but as the forest opened up somewhat there were tantalizing views of masonry among the trees, and walls disappearing off into the distance. And all of a sudden, there they were in all their magnificence, the tall temples that the Mayans had constructed centuries earlier.

There’s so much to see, and a huge number of pyramids and other buildings that (in 1977 at least) were still hidden under swathes of vegetation. But the principal temples have been uncovered, the central plaza and surrounding sites opened up to reveal the true majesty of this important Mayan site. No doubt, however, that the two pyramids facing each other across the main plaza are truly impressive – and steep!

And the views from the top are particularly striking, with tops of other ruined temples peeking above the trees into the distance.

All around are the reminders of what a sophisticated civilization the Mayans had. There’s even a ‘football pitch’ – well, a court for playing a game with a rubber ball made from the latex of local plant (but not the rubber tree – that’s from South America).

There’s so much to see and explore that time passes quickly. One advantage of an overnight stay is that you can visit the ruins very early in the morning, as we did on the second day. I don’t remember too much about our night there, except for the constant hum of mosquitoes.

All too soon our visit was over, and our DC3 was lumbering down the airstrip and lifting off into the late afternoon sun towards Guatemala City.

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And of course, Tikal was featured as the rebels’ headquarters in George Lucas’ first Star Wars movie (Episode IV) released in 1977 — just before we went there!

We’ve been fortunate to visit several other iconic sites in our travels: Machu Picchu, of course, in southern Peru; the Pyramids of the Sun and Moon at Teotihuacán, just northeast of Mexico City; and Angkor Wat in Cambodia. We’ve seen some of the most impressive native American sites in Arizona and New Mexico, and would love to visit all the sites of ancient Egypt, and Petra in Jordan – if only the political situation would settle down and permit safe travel. One day . . .