Indulging my [genetic resources] fantasies . . .

dnaLying in bed this morning, waiting for the news at 6 am on BBC’s Radio 4, I heard a brief ‘trailer’ for a new three-part series, Fantasy Festival, which begins on 13 August.

On the program’s website it states that: Festivals are fast becoming significant events on more and more people’s calendars. Whether it’s a huge rock fest or a small scale village event, it’s somebody’s job to imagine the festival before it happens, and to assemble all the pieces of the jigsaw that are needed to bring their vision to life.

But what if you could create your own festival – where you set the agenda, chose the guests, pick the acts, and dictate the weather, the food and the ambience? A festival where anyone – whether dead or alive – can be summoned to perform, and nothing is unimaginable.

What a treat!

Having been responsible for two international science conferences (on rice) in 2010, in Hanoi, and 2014, in Bangkok, I know all about the trials and tribulations of putting together a program of topics and speakers that most (never all) delegates will enjoy.

But, if there were no constraints at all, who would I invite to take part in a round-table discussion. From my perspective, it would be all about the nature and structure of genetic variation, and how it can be used for the benefit of society, especially under the threat of climate change.

So here’s a list I’ve just come up with. Who would be on yours?

I’m sure you must find this list rather surprising. And I can think of many more scientists* who could be a ‘panel member’. Some of my choices are obvious, others less so.

The fundamentals of evolution and genetics were the purview of Darwin and Mendel. What would they make of today’s advances in molecular biology, and how geneticists and plant breeders are using this sort of information to improve the crops that feed us. Susan McCouch is at the forefront of molecular genetics in her laboratory at Cornell University, dissecting the genome of rice and feeding that information into rice breeding. She’s also an excellent communicator.

Vavilov is the giant of genetic resources exploration and use. A genetic resources hero to many, no discussion of genetic conservation and use would be complete without his insights.

Edgar Anderson, a pioneer botanist in the USA, and former director of the Missouri Botanical Garden, demonstrated the importance of introgressive hybidization. Sir Otto Frankel is the father of the modern genetic resources movement, and an acclaimed wheat breeder in Australia. Jack Heslop-Harrison could turn his hand to almost anything botanical. But it’s for his broad perspectives on genetic variation in populations that I would include him, specifically for those on genecology.

Trevor Williams, a former director of the International Board for Plant Genetic Resources, oversaw the development of the international network of genebanks, and development of national capacity around the worked to successfully collect and conserve genetic resources. He had a broad view about conservation and use.

And sitting among these eminent scientists, from the pivotal year of 1953, is Nobel laureate Francis Crick. It would be interesting to know what he would have thought about these latest applications of molecular genetics in the service of humanity.

* G Ledyard Stebbins; Jack Hawkes; Erna Bennett; Clausen, Keck and Hiesey among others.

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