Science publications that influenced my choice of career . . .

I’m sure, like me, many scientists have a few publications that they treasure. No, I’m not referring to any which they themselves authored; rather, publications that made them sit up and pay attention, so to speak. And, in doing so, particularly stimulated their interest and perhaps even guided their own scientific careers subsequently.

I’ve now been retired for ten years, but I still look back to how I got started in the world of plant genetic resources fifty years ago, and some of the scientific publications that pointed me in that direction. Let me backup a little and explain how this came about.

In 1967, I was accepted on to a BSc degree course at the University of Southampton (on England’s south coast) to study environmental botany and geography. I’ve written elsewhere about the three very happy years I spent in Southampton until graduation in July 1970.

The core of my degree course, particularly in my third or senior year, was a two semester ecology module taught in the Botany department, and different aspects of physical geography (such as geomorphology, biogeography, and climatology) in the Geography department. But I also took several shorter elective modules in Botany, including plant speciation, plant breeding, and population genetics. This latter course was taught by one of the pioneers in this field, Vice Chancellor Professor Sir Kenneth Mather who came to Southampton from the University of Birmingham (where he had been head of the Department of Genetics). He claimed (probably with some justification) that he was the only teaching Vice Chancellor at that time in the UK.

Joyce Lambert

We were a small group of only six or so ecology students, and this module was taught by quantitative ecologist Dr Joyce Lambert (who was also my personal tutor). All of us were required to submit an extended essay of 4-5000 words on an ‘ecological topic’ of our choice. It goes without saying that Joyce hinted she would prefer essays about her interest, namely the application of numerical methods to study vegetation landscapes.

I did not heed Joyce’s ‘advice’; I guess she was not best pleased. Instead, and with encouragement from genetics lecturer Dr Joe Smartt, I chose to explore the relationship between ecology, genetics, and taxonomy (the related fields of ecological genetics and experimental taxonomy) in an essay about the concept of ‘ecotypes’. Simply put, an ecotype is a distinct form or race of a plant occupying a particular habitat.

So that was my aim. What would be my entry point? And which literature would be most useful for my purpose?

From the 1920s onwards, several botanists (Göte Turesson in Sweden, JW Gregor in Scotland, and three staff at the Carnegie Institute of Washington in Stanford: geneticist Jens Clausen, physiologist William Hiesey, and taxonomist David Keck) had studied the variation of species (genetically, physiologically, and taxonomically) in relation to their environments, and the role of natural selection on plant adaptation. There was a wealth of literature to delve into. But where to begin?

Jack Heslop-Harrison

I was fortunate that, just a few years earlier, Professor Jack Heslop-Harrison (then Mason Professor of Botany at the University of Birmingham) published an important review paper about what became for me a fascinating branch of botanical science, the study of variation within species in relation to environment.

Forty years of genecology, published in Advances in Ecological Research in 1964 (Vol. 2: 159-247) was, for me, one of those formative publications. Not only was the review thoroughly comprehensive in its coverage, but had the added quality of being extremely well written. It has stood the test of time. Yet, it would be interesting to bring it up to date, introducing all the latest evidence based on molecular biology and genomics.

When I contacted Heslop-Harrison’s son ‘Pat’ (who is Professor of Plant Cell Biology and Molecular Cytogenetics at the University of Leicester) to request a copy of his father’s paper (I’d ‘lost’ the copy I once had) he told me that he began writing a review 100 years of genecology, but had never completed it.

He did make this interesting comment: When I started on a ‘100 years’ update, I was taken that some parts [of ‘Forty years of genecology’] sounded remarkably old-fashioned, while other parts could fit unchanged in a strong grant application made today. But how the combination of molecular/marker studies and modelling has really allowed genecology to take its rightful place in biology.

Immersing myself in the various concepts of ‘ecotype’, ‘clines’, and ‘infraspecific variation’ among many others, Heslop-Harrison’s review not only provided me with the impetus to fulfil a pressing course assignment, but subconsciously perhaps helped me make some decisions about a future career. I guess this was the first time I became really enthusiastic about any botanical sub-discipline. Later on, when I began working in the area of conservation and use of plant genetic resources, the study of variation patterns and adaptation in crop species and their wild relatives became an important focus of what I set out to achieve. In fact, understanding the nature of crop plant variation—and how to use it—is one of the fundamental concepts underpinning the value of plant genetic resources.

No study of variation in plant species would be complete, even today I believe, without reference to the pioneering work of Clausen, Keck, and Hiesey in California over several decades from the 1930s. Their work had been highlighted, of course, in Heslop-Harrison’s review. I went back to their original papers*.

L-R: Jens Clausen (cytology and genetics), William Hiesey (physiology), and David Keck (taxonomy/botany)

And what an eye-opener they were: a classic set of papers, published between 1934 and 1958, describing experimental studies on the nature of species that really caught my attention, and to which I still return from time to time.

While others, like Turesson and Gregor, had also studied plant variation experimentally, their work was not on the same scale that Clausen and his colleagues achieved across central California, from the coast to the high Sierra Nevada.

Working with a range of species, they collected samples from different populations of each across this Californian transect and, using a reciprocal transplant approach, grew samples at experimental gardens on the coast at Stanford and at different altitudes in the mountains, at Mather and Timberline. So, for example, samples collected from coastal sites were grown at the high altitude garden, and vice versa and all combinations in between. Even the same species looked different under different environments, in terms of plant stature or days to flowering, for example, being just two of the many traits they studied. They were interested if these traits would persist when grown in another environment. Here is an example from yarrow or Achillea.

Clausen, J, DD Keck and WM Hiesey, 1948. Experimental studies on the nature of species. III: Environmental responses of climatic races of Achillea. Publication 581. Washington, D.C.: Carnegie Institution of Washington.

They studied how well plants from one environment thrived in another, identifying the adaptations that enabled them to survive, and understanding both the genetic and physiological basis for adaptation, while recognising some of the variants taxonomically, if warranted. Many were simply locally-adapted populations, or ecotypes. Just a beautiful and competent piece of science.

Anyway, come the summer of 1970 and having just graduated, I still wasn’t sure what I’d be doing or where. I’d been accepted on to the MSc course on Conservation and Utilization of Plant Genetic Resources at the University of Birmingham to begin in September. But while I had a guaranteed place, there was no funding. And without a studentship there was no way I could support myself and pay tuition fees.

That all changed at the beginning of August or thereabouts. I had a phone call from Professor Jack Hawkes, who was Mason Professor of Botany (succeeding Heslop-Harrison) and the MSc course director, letting me know he’d found some funds to support my studies. It was wonderful news, and I immediately began to make plans to move to Birmingham in mid-September.

There was one important thing Jack asked me to do: purchase a copy of a book that had just been published, and try and work my way through it before I landed up in Birmingham.

This book, Genetic Resources in Plants – their Exploration and Conservation, was more than an eye opener as far as I was concerned. It was as if the scales fell from my eyes. What a revelation!

The book was dedicated to Nikolai Ivanovich Vavilov. Until then I’d never heard of this eminent Russian geneticist, the ‘Father of Plant Genetic Resources’, who subsequently became something of a scientific hero of mine.

Edited by wheat breeder Sir Otto Frankel and FAO scientist Dr Erna Bennett, both pioneers of the 1960s genetic resources movement, this book was essential reading for anyone entering the new field of conservation and use of plant genetic resources.

Sir Otto Frankel and Erna Bennett

It emerged from a technical conference held at FAO headquarters in Rome on 18-26 September 1967, and comprised 44 chapters penned by many if not most of the leading lights then in genetic conservation and crop and forestry specialists from around the world. As Sir Otto wrote in the preface, the book attempts to define and develop the principles underlying the various stages of exploration, conservation and utilization. Its usefulness will depend on the degree to which it succeeds in illuminating practical problems, rather than offering prescriptions or instructions.

In the course of my own entry into the world of plant genetic resources, I came to meet and become friends with several of the contributors.

The six sections covered topics in: (1) Biological background (the nature of crop diversity, centers of origin, taxonomy); (2) Tactics of exploration and collection; (3) Examples of exploration (crops and forestry); (4) Evaluation and utilization; (5) Documentation, records and retrieval; and (6) Conservation.

It became something of a ‘bible’ for me, and even today, I dip into its many chapters to refresh some of my ideas. Yes, the world of conservation and use of plant genetic resources has moved on significantly since its publication 50 years ago. Just think of the remarkable advances in molecular biology and genomics that nowadays open up a whole new dimension to our understanding of variation among important crop species and their wild relatives. And the impressive progress in computing for both data analysis as well as data management for crop germplasm collections. Fifty years ago, many things that we consider routine today were then but a pipe dream, if they were even on someone’s intellectual horizon.

I really do believe that anyone contemplating a career in plant genetic conservation as I was, 50 years ago, would benefit from delving into Frankel and Bennett, not only to appreciate how the genetic resources movement started in the 1960s, but also just how we have come in the five decades since.


*These are the papers from the California group of Clausen, Keck and Hiesey:

  • Clausen J, DD Keck & WM Hiesey, 1934. Experimental taxonomy. Yearb. Carneg. Inst. 33, 173-177.
  • Clausen J, DD Keck & WM Hiesey, 1939. The concept of species based on experiment. Amer. J. Bot. 26, 103-106.
  • Clausen J, DD Keck & WM Hiesey, 1940. Experimental studies on the nature of species. I. Effect of varied environments on western North American plants. Publ. Carneg. Instn. No. 520.
  • Clausen J, DD Keck & WM Hiesey, 1945. Experimental studies on the nature of species. II. Plant evolution through amphiploidy and autoploidy, with examples from the Madiinae. Publ. Carneg. Instn. No. 564.
  • Clausen J, DD Keck, & WM Hiesey, 1948. Experimental studies on the nature of species. III. Environmental responses of climatic races of Achillea. Publ. Carneg. Instn. No. 581.
  • Clausen J & WM Hiesey, 1958. Experimental studies on the nature of species. IV. Genetic structure of ecological races. Publ. Carneg. Instn. No. 615.

 

You’ve got mail . . . maybe

Email. Something we take for granted. In these Covid-19 lockdown days, where would be without email to keep in touch with family and friends? In fact, for many, working from home without access to emails would not be an option.

And what about Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, WhatsApp, Zoom, and all the other messaging apps?

Bob Zeigler

Yet it’s not so long ago that none of us had access to any of these. How things have changed over the past 40 years, even just the last decade.

My former colleague and IRRI Director General Bob Zeigler often said that we were living through three revolutions: in telecommunications, computing, and molecular biology. It was the combination of these three that allowed scientists to collaborate world-wide in real time, using the ‘new’ computing power to handle the vast amounts of data that molecular biology was generating.

That wasn’t so . . . not so long ago.

When, in 1976, the Director General of the International Potato Center (CIP), Dr Richard Sawyer, asked me to set up a satellite research program in Costa Rica (at a regional center, CATIE, in Turrialba) the only ways we had to communicate with HQ in Lima were ‘snail mail’, telephone, or Telex. Even making a phone call was difficult. I had to book an international call to Peru at least a day ahead.

Margaret Hamilton in 1969, standing next to listings of the software she and her MIT team produced for the Apollo project.

There were no personal computers. Even hand-held calculators were a novelty. I remember one scientist at CATIE, soil scientist Warren Forsythe, proudly showing off a newfangled—and basic—electronic calculator (addition, subtraction, division, multiplication functions only) that he’d recently spent more than USD400 on (that’s about USD1800 today!). They almost give them away nowadays. There’s more processing power in your basic smartphone than took the first astronauts to the Moon.

When I was an undergraduate at the University of Southampton in the late 1960s we used either logarithmic tables (log tables) or a hand-cranked calculating machine like the one shown below. I’m not sure if I remember nowadays how to use log tables. I never did master the slide rule.

The first computer I ever saw was at a major steelworks (Ravenscraig I think it was, at Motherwell, just south of Glasgow) where my eldest brother Martin was a computer engineer. He took me along one afternoon when he had access to the computer (an ICL mainframe if memory serves me right) for routine maintenance.

He showed me how paper tapes were used to run routines. Paper tape? I can’t remember the last time I saw that.

Completing an honours ecology project for my undergraduate dissertation in 1970, I used the university’s mainframe computer to complete a type of vegetation analysis known as Association Analysis.  Ecologist Joyce Lambert was my supervisor, and she and former head of the Department of Botany, Professor Bill Williams, were pioneers in the use of computers and quantitative methods in ecology [1]. I encoded my data on punched cards, with the help of one of the graduate students, John Barr (studying for a PhD in numerical taxonomy).

When I moved to Birmingham in 1970 (to study for the one year MSc course on plant genetic resources) there was a short module on data management, taught by Brian Kershaw, a programmer in the university’s Computer Centre. He developed the computer programs to sort and collate data, and print maps, for A Computer-Mapped Flora: A Study of The County of Warwickshire [2] published in 1971, and the first of its kind. His MSc module was more about basic programming than data management per se and not, in my opinion, very helpful, or enlightening. Things changed once we had access to personal computers over a decade later.

IBM launched its first personal computer (PC) in August 1981, just a few months after I had returned to the UK and joined the faculty of the University of Birmingham. My memory is fuzzy. We must have had one of these in our lab in the Department of Plant Biology (School of Biological Sciences). I can remember that we used 5¼ inch floppy disks, but also installed an 8 inch disk reader. MS-DOS was the operating system.

It wasn’t until one of my colleagues, plant physiologist Dr Digby Idle secured a grant to purchase half a dozen Apple Macintosh computers that we had access to personal computers, mainly for teaching. They certainly revolutionized the teaching of data management to MSc students by my colleague Dr Brian Ford-Lloyd.

Staff were sometimes allowed to take a machine home for weekend. My young daughters Hannah and Philippa had great fun exploring a couple of the games (rudimentary by today’s standards) that came with each computer.

Personal computing really took off, however, once Alan Sugar released the first IBM clones under the Amstrad brand in the 1980s. I bought several machines for my lab. We were still using the university’s mainframe computer for analysis of large data sets. It wasn’t until the end of the 1980s that PCs began to have the power to carry out some of these same analyses.

I even purchased an Amstrad for home use. It had twin 5¼ inch floppy disk drives, each with a capacity of about 500 Kb if I’m not mistaken. But then I installed a 32 MB hard drive, and then we were really cooking! There was no internet of course, and no WiFi. But connected to a dot matrix printer (are they around any more?), and using a word processing package called PFS First Choice. By today’s standards it wasn’t sophisticated at all, but it was convenient for home use [3].

We even took that Amstrad to the Philippines in 1991 and used it for a couple of years. I found it at the back of a cupboard 19 years later when we were packing to return to the UK.

But I digress. Back to emails.

I don’t really remember when we started to use email in a rather simple way at the university during the 1980s. Even after I had moved to IRRI in July 1991 I had to ‘fight’ to have a PC on my desk. Again I’m not certain when email was routinely used at the institute.

But by the time I had moved from the Genetic Resources Center to become Director for Program Planning and Communications (DPPC) in May 2001, email was well established as the most convenient and regularly used method of communication among staff at IRRI, and with external collaborators and donors. In fact, as I set up the DPPC Office much of what we achieved was based on a systematic use and filing of emails in lieu of communication through hard copies.

I’m the sort of person who attends to all incoming correspondence—memos, letters, emails—more or less straight away, deciding whether to respond immediately or taking a decision to put that to one side for a response later on. At the very least, I tried to send an acknowledgment that someone’s communication has been received. Being in a senior management position, I felt it was really important to keep on top of emails and the like, because without a response, the sender might not be able to move ahead without a decision from me. Even if that meant working through 10s if not 100s of emails a day. I never liked the grass to grow beneath my feet, so to speak.

But communication by email was both a blessing and a curse as far as project management was concerned. Because emails could be sent instantaneously, more or less, it was possible to send off project reports, or even funding requests, right up to any deadline, not having to prepare several weeks ahead for ‘snail mail’ delivery.

However, the use of emails also made some donors (like USAID, for example) somewhat dysfunctional. Knowing that we would be able to send replies in by email, they would often make demands of us for information, reports, or whatever, just before their deadline, without understanding that we also needed appropriate lead time to compile and prepare the information requested. The transmission by email was just a bonus.

But there’s no doubt that how we used email in DPPC, straight to our donor contacts, greatly enhanced fund-raising capability at IRRI.

I still look forward to receiving emails from family and friends. For many years I have used Fastmail as my platform of choice, although I do keep a Gmail address as a backup. And, for most of my continuing business and utility contacts, emails are the preferred method of communication. It’s always a pleasure when an unexpected email drops into my mailbox especially from someone I haven’t heard from for some time.

Yes, I’ve got mail . . .


[1] Williams, WT and JM Lambert, 1960. Multivariate methods in plant ecology: the use of an electronic digital computer for Association-Analysis. Journal of Ecology, 48: 689-710.

[2] Cadbury, DA, JG Hawkes and RC Readett, 1971. A Computer-Mapped Flora: A Study of The County of Warwickshire. Academic Press, London and New York.

[3] After I’d published this story yesterday (4 May 2020) a friend reminded me of the word processing software we used in the 1980s: WordStar, written for the CP/M operating system. It was generally replaced by WordPerfect, a package I never got to grips with. I became really quite proficient in the use of WordStar. Who can forget all those formatting tools for bold, underlining, and italics, etc?

 

Potatoes or rice?

I graduated in July 1970 from the University of Southampton (a university on England’s south coast) with a BSc Hons degree in botany and geography. ‘Environmental botany’ actually, whatever that meant. The powers that be changed the degree title half way through my final (i.e. senior) year.

Anyway, there I was with my degree, and not sure what the future held in store. It was however the beginning of a fruitful 40 year career in international agricultural research and academia at three institutions over three continents, in a number of roles: research scientist, principal investigator (PI), program leader, teacher, and senior research manager, working primarily on potatoes (Solanum tuberosum) and rice (Oryza sativa), with diversions into some legume species such as the grasspea, an edible form of Lathyrus.

Potatoes on the lower slopes of the Irazu volcano in Costa Rica, and rice in Bhutan

I spent the 1970s in South and Central America with the International Potato Center (CIP), the 1980s at the University of Birmingham as a Lecturer in the School of Biological Sciences (Plant Biology), and almost 19 years from July 1991 (until my retirement on 30 April 2010) at the International Rice Research Institute (IRRI) in the Philippines¹.

I divided my research time during those 40 years more or less equally between potatoes and rice (not counting the legume ‘diversions’), and over a range of disciplines: biosystematics and pre-breeding, genetic conservation, crop agronomy and production, plant pathology, plant breeding, and biotechnology. I was a bit of a ‘jack-of-all-trades’, getting involved when and where needs must.

However, I haven’t been a ‘hands-on’ researcher since the late 1970s. At both Birmingham and IRRI, I had active research teams, with some working towards their MSc or PhD, others as full time researchers. You can see our research output over many years in this list of publications.

Richard Sawyer

Very early on in my career I became involved in research management at one level or another. Having completed my PhD at Birmingham in December 1975 (and just turned 27), CIP’s Director General Richard Sawyer asked me to set up a research program in Costa Rica. I moved there in April 1976 and stayed there until November 1980.


In these Covid-19 lockdown days, I’m having ample time to reflect on times past. And today, 30 April, it’s exactly 10 years since I retired.

Just recently there was a Twitter exchange between some of my friends about the focus of their research, and the species they had most enjoyed working on.

And that got me thinking. If I had to choose between potatoes and rice, which one would it be? A hard decision. Even harder, perhaps, is the role I most enjoyed (or gave me the most satisfaction) or, from another perspective, in which I felt I’d accomplished most. I’m not even going to hazard a comparison between living and working in Peru (and Costa Rica) versus the Philippines. However, Peru has the majesty of its mountain landscapes and its incredible cultural history and archaeological record (notwithstanding I’d had an ambition from a small boy to visit Peru one day). Costa Rica has its incredible natural world, a real biodiversity hotspot, especially for the brilliant bird life. And the Philippines I’ll always remember for all wonderful, smiling faces of hard-working Filipinos.

And the scuba diving, of course.

Anyway, back to potatoes and rice. Both are vitally important for world food security. The potato is, by far, the world’s most important ‘root’ crop (it’s actually a tuber, a modified underground stem), by tonnage at least, and grown worldwide. Rice is the world’s most important crop. Period! Most rice is grown and consumed in Asia. It feeds more people on a daily basis, half the world’s population, than any other staple. Nothing comes close, except wheat or maize perhaps, but much of those grains is processed into other products (bread and pasta) or fed to animals. Rice is consumed directly as the grain.


Just 24 when I joined CIP as a taxonomist in January 1973, one of my main responsibilities was to collect potato varieties in various parts of the Peruvian Andes to add to the growing germplasm collection of native varieties and wild species. I made three trips during my three years in Peru: in May 1973 to the departments of Ancash and La Libertad (with my colleague, Zósimo Huamán); in May 1974 to Cajamarca (accompanied by my driver Octavio); and in January/February 1974 to Cuyo-Cuyo in Puno and near Cuzco, with University of St Andrews lecturer, Dr Peter Gibbs.

Top: with Octavio in Cajamarca, checking potato varieties with a farmer. Bottom: ready for the field, near Cuzco.

My own biosystematics/pre-breeding PhD research on potatoes looked at the breeding relationships between cultivated forms with different chromosome numbers (multiples of 12) that don’t naturally intercross freely, as well as diversity within one form with 36 chromosomes, Solanum x chaucha. In the image below, some of that diversity is shown, as well as examples of how we made crosses (pollinations) between different varieties, using the so-called ‘cut stem method’ in bottles.

Several PhD students of mine at Birmingham studied resistance to pests and diseases in the myriad of more than 100 wild species of potato that are found from the southern USA to southern Chile. We even looked at the possibility of protoplast fusion (essentially fusion of ‘naked’ cells) between different species, but not successfully.

I developed a range of biosystematics projects when taking over leadership of the International Rice Genebank at IRRI, publishing extensively about the relationships among the handful (about 20 or so) wild rice species and cultivated rice. One of the genebank staff, Elizabeth Ma. ‘Yvette’ Naredo (pointing in the image below) completed her MS degree under my supervision.

Although this research had a ‘taxonomic’ focus in one sense (figuring out the limits of species to one another), it also had the practical focus of demonstrating how easily species might be used in plant breeding, according to their breeding relationships, based on the genepool concept of Harlan and de Wet, 1971 [1], illustrated diagrammatically below.


When I transferred to Costa Rica in 1976, I was asked to look into the possibility of growing potatoes under hot, humid conditions. At that time CIP was looking to expand potato production into areas and regions not normally associated with potato cultivation. One of the things I did learn was how to grow a crop of potatoes.

I was based in Turrialba (at the regional institute CATIE), at around 650 masl, with an average temperature of around 23°C (as high as 30°C and never much lower than about 15°C; annual rainfall averages more than 2800 mm). Although we did identify several varieties that could thrive under these conditions, particularly during the cooler months of the year, we actually faced a more insidious problem, and one that kept me busy throughout my time in Costa Rica.

Shortly after we planted the first field trials on CATIE’s experiment station, we noticed that some plants were showing signs of wilting but we didn’t know the cause.

With my research assistant Jorge Aguilar checking on wilted plants in one of the field trials.

Luis Carlos González

Fortunately, I established a very good relationship with Dr Luis Carlos González Umaña, a plant pathologist in the University of Costa Rica, who quickly identified the culprit: a bacterium then known as Pseudomonas solanacearum (now Ralstonia solanacearum) that causes the disease known as bacterial wilt.

I spent over three years looking into several ways of controlling bacterial wilt that affects potato production in many parts of the world. An account of that work was one of the first posts I published in this blog way back in 2012.

The other aspect of potato production which gave me great satisfaction is the work that my colleague and dear friend Jim Bryan and I did on rapid multiplication systems for seed potatoes.

Being a vegetatively-propagated crop, potatoes are affected by many diseases. Beginning with healthy stock is essential. The multiplication rate with potatoes is low compared to crops that reproduce through seeds, like rice and wheat. In order to bulk up varieties quickly, we developed a set of multiplication techniques that have revolutionised potato seed production systems ever since around the world.

AS CIP’s Regional Representative for Mexico, Central America, and the Caribbean (known as CIP’s Region II), I also contributed to various potato production training courses held each year in Mexico. But one of our signature achievements was the launch of a six nation research network or consortium in 1978, known as PRECODEPA (Programa REgional COoperativo DE PApa), one of the first among the CGIAR centers. It was funded by the Swiss Government.

Shortly after I left Costa Rica in November 1980, heading back to Lima (and unsure where my next posting would be) PRECODEPA was well-established, and leadership was assumed by the head of one of the national potato program members of the network. PRECODEPA expanded to include more countries in the region (in Spanish, French, and English), and was supported continually by the Swiss for more than 25 years. I have written here about how PRECODEPA was founded and what it achieved in the early years.

I resigned from CIP in March 1981 and returned to the UK, spending a decade teaching at the University of Birmingham.


Did I enjoy my time at Birmingham? I have mixed feelings.

I had quite a heavy teaching load, and took on several administrative roles, becoming Chair of the Biological Sciences Second Year Common Course (to which I contributed a module of about six lectures on agricultural ecosystems). I had no first teaching commitments whatsoever, thank goodness. I taught a second year module with my colleague Richard Lester on flowering plant taxonomy, contributing lectures about understanding species relationships through experimentation.

Brian Ford-Lloyd

With my close friend and colleague Dr Brian Ford-Lloyd (later Professor), I taught a final year module on plant genetic resources, the most enjoyable component of my undergraduate teaching.

One aspect of my undergraduate responsibilities that I really did enjoy (and took seriously, I believe—and recently confirmed by a former tutee!) was the role of personal tutor to 1st, 2nd and 3rd year students. I would meet with them about once a week to discuss their work, give advice, set assignments, and generally be a sounding board for any issues they wanted to raise with me. My door was always open.

Most of my teaching—on crop diversity and evolution, germplasm collecting, agricultural systems, among others—was a contribution to the one year (and international) MSc Course on Conservation and Utilization of Plant Genetic Resources on which I had studied a decade earlier. In my travels around the world after I joined IRRI in 1991, I would often bump into my former students, and several also contributed to a major rice biodiversity project that I managed for five years from 1995. I’m still in contact with some of those students, some of whom have found me through this blog. And I’m still in contact with two of my classmates from 1970-71.

Research on potatoes during the 1980s at Birmingham was not straightforward. On the one hand I would have liked to continue the work on wild species that had been the focus of Professor Jack Hawkes’ research over many decades.

With Jack Hawkes, collecting Solanum multidissectum in the central Andes north of Lima in early 1981 just before I left CIP to return to the UK. This was the only time I collected with Hawkes. What knowledge he had!

He had built up an important collection of wild species that he collected throughout the Americas. I was unable to attract much funding to support any research projects. It wasn’t a research council priority. Furthermore, there were restrictions on how we could grow these species, because of strict quarantine regulations. In the end I decided that the Hawkes Collection would be better housed in Scotland at the Commonwealth Potato Collection (or CPC, that had been set up after the Empire Potato Collecting Expedition in 1938-39 in which Jack participated). In 1987, the Hawkes Collection was acquired by the CPC and remains there to this day.

Dave Downing was the department technician who looked after the potato collection at Birmingham. He did a great job coaxing many different species to flower.

Having said that, one MSc student, Susan Juned, investigated morphological and enzyme diversity in the wild species Solanum chacoense. After graduating Susan joined another project on potato somaclones that was managed by myself and Brian Ford-Lloyd (see below). Another student, Ian Gubb, continued our work on the lack of enzymic blackening in Solanum hjertingii, a species from Mexico, in collaboration with the Food Research Institute in Norwich, where he grew his research materials under special quarantine licence. A couple of Peruvian students completed their degrees while working at CIP, so I had the opportunity of visiting CIP a couple of times while each was doing field work, and renew my contacts with former colleagues. In 1988, I was asked by CIP to join a panel for a three week review of a major seed production project at several locations around Peru.

With funding of the UK’s Overseas Development Administration (ODA, or whatever it was then), and now the Department for International Development (DFID), and in collaboration with the Plant Breeding Institute (PBI) in Cambridge and CIP, in 1983/84 we began an ambitious (and ultimately unsuccessful) project on true potato seed (TPS) using single seed descent (SSD) in diploid potatoes (having 24 chromosomes). Because of the potato quarantine situation at Birmingham, we established this TPS project at PBI, and over the first three years made sufficient progress for ODA to renew our grant for a second three year period.

We hit two snags, one biological, the other administrative/financial that led to us closing the project after five years. On reflection I also regret hiring the researcher we did. I’ve not had the same recruitment problem since.

Working with diploid potatoes was always going to be a challenge. They are self incompatible, meaning that the pollen from a flower ‘cannot’ fertilize the same flower. Nowadays mutant forms have been developed that overcome this incompatibility and it would be possible to undertake SSD as we envisaged. Eventually we hit a biological brick wall, and we decided the effort to pursue our goal would take more resources than we could muster. In addition, the PBI was privatized in 1987 and we had to relocate the project to Birmingham (another reason for handing over the Hawkes Collection to the CPC). We lost valuable research impetus in that move, building new facilities and the like. I think it was the right decision to pull the plug when we did, admit our lack of success, and move on.

We wrote about the philosophy and aims of this TPS project in 1984 [2], but I don’t have a copy of that publication. Later, in 1987, I wrote this review of TPS breeding [3].

Susan Juned

As I mentioned above, Brian Ford-Lloyd and I received a commercial grant to look into producing tissue-culture induced variants, or somaclones, of the crisping potato variety Record with reduced low temperature sweetening that leads to ‘blackened’ crisps (or chips in the USA) on frying. We hired Susan Juned as the researcher, and she eventually received her PhD in 1994 for this work. Since we kept the identity of each separate Record tuber from the outset of the project, over 150 tubers, and all the somaclone lines derived from each, we also showed that there were consequences for potato seed production and maintenance of healthy stocks as tissue cultures. We published that work in 1991. We also produced a few promising lines of Record for our commercial sponsor.

One funny aspect to this project is that we made it on to Page 3 of the tabloid newspaper The Sun, notorious in those days for a daily image of a well-endowed and naked young lady. Some journalist or other picked up a short research note in a university bulletin, and published an extremely short paragraph at the bottom of Page 3 (Crunch time for boffins) as if our project did not have a serious objective. In fact, I was even invited to go on the BBC breakfast show before I explained that the project had a serious objective. We weren’t just investigating ‘black bits in crisp packets’.

Brian and I (with a colleague, Martin Parry, in the Department of Geography) organized a workshop on climate change in 1989, when there was still a great deal of skepticism. We published a book in 1990 from that meeting (and followed up in 2013 with another).

Despite some successes while at Birmingham, and about to be promoted to Senior Lecturer, I had started to become disillusioned with academic life by the end of the 1980s, and began to look for new opportunities. That’s when I heard about a new position at IRRI in the Philippines: Head of the newly-established Genetic Resources Center, with responsibility for the world renowned and largest international rice genebank. I applied. The rest is history,


Klaus Lampe

I was appointed by Director General Klaus Lampe even though I’d never actually run a genebank before. Taking on a genebank as prestigious as the International Rice Genebank was rather daunting. But help was on the way.

I knew I had a good team of staff. All they needed was better direction to run a genebank efficiently, and bring the genebank’s operations up to a higher standard.

Staff of the International Rice Genebank on a visit to PhilRice in 1996.

There was hardly an aspect of the operations that we didn’t overhaul. Not that I had the genebank team on my side from the outset. It took a few months for them to appreciate that my vision for the genebank was viable. Once on board, they took ownership of and responsibility for the individual operations while I kept an overview of the genebank’s operation as a whole.

With Pola de Guzman inside the Active Collection store room at +4C. Pola was my right hand in the genebank, and I asked her to take on the role of genebank manager, a position she holds to this day.

I’ve written extensively in this blog about the genebank and genetic resources of rice, and in this post I gave an overview of what we achieved.

You can find more detailed stories of the issues we faced with data management and germplasm characterization, or seed conservation and regeneration (in collaboration with my good friend Professor Richard Ellis of the University of Reading). We also set about making sure that germplasm from around Asia (and Africa and the Americas) was safe in genebanks and duplicated in the International Rice Genebank. We embarked on an ambitious five year project (funded by the Swiss government) to collect rice varieties mainly (and some wild samples as well), thereby increasing the size of the genebank collection by more than 25% to around 100,000 samples or accessions. The work in Laos was particularly productive.

My colleague, Dr Seepana Appa Rao (left) and Lao colleagues interviewing a farmer in Khammouane Province about the rice varieties she was growing.

We did a lot of training in data management and germplasm collecting, and successfully studied how farmers manage rice varieties (for in situ or on farm conservation) in the Philippines, Vietnam, and India.

One of IRRI’s main donors is the UK government through DFID. In the early 1990s, not long after I joined IRRI, DFID launched a new initiative known as ‘Holdback’ through which some of the funding that would, under normal circumstances, have gone directly to IRRI and its sister CGIAR centers was held back to encourage collaboration between dneters and scientists in the UK.

Whenever I returned on annual home leave, I would spend some time in the lab at Birmingham. John Newbury is on the far left, Parminder Virk is third from left, and Brian Ford-Lloyd on the right (next to me). One of my GRC staff, the late Amy Juliano spent a couple of months at Birmingham learning new molecular techniques. She is on the front row, fourth from right.

With my former colleagues at the University of Birmingham (Brian Ford-Lloyd, Dr John  Newbury, and Dr Parminder Virk) and a group at the John Innes Centre in Norwich (the late Professor Mike Gale and Dr Glenn Bryan) we set about investigating how molecular markers (somewhat in their infancy back in the day) could be used describe diversity in the rice collection or identify duplicate accessions.

Not only was this successful, but we published some of the first research in plants showing the predictive value of molecular markers for quantitative traits. Dismissed at the time by some in the scientific community, the study of  associations between molecular markers and traits is now mainstream.

In January 1993, I was elected Chair while attending my first meeting of the Inter-Center Working Group on Genetic Resources (ICWG-GR) in Ethiopia (my first foray into Africa), a forum bringing expertise in genetic conservation together among the CGIAR centers.

ICWG-GR meeting held at ILCA in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia in January 1993.

Over the next three years while I was Chair, the ICWG-GR managed a review of genetic resources in the CGIAR, and a review of center genebanks. We also set up the System-Wide Genetic Resources Program, that has now become the Genebank Platform.


I never expected to remain at IRRI as long as I did, almost nineteen years. I thought maybe ten years at most, and towards the end of the 1990s I began to look around for other opportunities.

Then, in early 2001, my career took another course, and I left genetic resources behind, so to speak, and moved into senior management at IRRI as Director for Program Planning and Coordination (later Communications, DPPC). And I stayed in that role until retiring from the institute ten years ago.

Top: after our Christmas lunch together at Antonio’s restaurant in Tagaytay, one of the best in the Philippines. To my left are: Sol, Eric, Corints, Vel, and Zeny. Below: this was my last day at IRRI, with Eric, Zeny, Corints, Vel, and Yeyet (who replaced Sol in 2008).

Ron Cantrell

The Director General, Ron Cantrell, asked me to beef up IRRI’s resource mobilization and project management. IRRI’s reputation with its donors had slipped. It wasn’t reporting adequately, or on time, on the various projects funded at the institute. Furthermore, management was not sure just what projects were being funded, by which donor, for what period, and what commitments had been set at the beginning of each. What an indictment!

I wrote about how DPPC came into being in this blog post. One of the first tasks was to align information about projects across the institute, particularly with the Finance Office. It wasn’t rocket science. We just gave every project (from concept paper to completion) a unique ID that had to be used by everyone. We also developed a corporate brand for our project reporting so that any donor could immediately recognise a report from IRRI.

So we set about developing a comprehensive project management system, restoring IRRI’s reputation in less than a year, and helping to increase the annual budget to around US$60 million. We also took on a role in risk management, performance appraisal, and the development of IRRI’s Medium Term Plans and its Strategy.

Bob Zeigler

Then under Ron’s successor, Bob Zeigler, DPPC went from strength to strength. Looking back on it, I think those nine years in DPPC were the most productive and satisfying of my whole career. In that senior management role I’d finally found my niche. There’s no doubt that the success of DPPC was due to the great team I brought together, particularly Corinta who I plucked out of the research program where she was working as a soil chemist.

Around 2005, after Bob became the DG, I also took on line management responsibility for a number of support units: Communication and Publications Services (CPS), Library and Documentation Services (LDS), Information Technology Service (ITS), and the Development Office (DO). Corinta took over day-to-day management of IRRI’s project portfolio.

With my unit heads, L-R: Gene Hettel (CPS), Mila Ramos (LDS), Marco van den Berg (ITS), Duncan Macintosh (DO), and Corinta Guerta (DPPC).


So, ten years on, what memories I have to keep my mind ticking over during these quiet days. When I began this post (which has turned out much longer than I ever anticipated) my aim was to decide between potatoes and rice. Having worked my way through forty years of wonderful experiences, I find I cannot choose one over the other. There’s no doubt however that I made a greater contribution to research and development during my rice days.

Nevertheless, I can’t help thinking about my South American potato days with great affection, and knowing that, given the chance, I’d be back up in the Andes at a moment’s notice. Potatoes are part of me, in a way that rice never became.

Farmer varieties of potatoes commonly found throughout the Andes of Peru.


Everyone needs good mentors. I hope I was a good mentor to the folks who worked with me. I was fortunate to have had great mentors. I’ve already mentioned a number of the people who had an influence on my career.

I can’t finish this overview of my forty years in international agriculture and academia without mentioning five others: Joe Smartt (University of Southampton); Trevor Williams (University of Birmingham); Roger Rowe (CIP); John Niederhauser (1990 World Food Prize Laureate); and Ken Brown (CIP)

L-R: Joe Smartt, Trevor Williams, Roger Rowe, and John Niederhauser.

  • Joe, a lecturer in genetics, encouraged me to apply for the MSc Course at Birmingham in early 1970. I guess without his encouragement (and Jack Hawkes accepting me on to the course) I never would have embarked on a career in genetic conservation and international agriculture. I kept in regular touch with Joe until he passed away in 2013.
  • At Birmingham, Trevor supervised my MSc dissertation on lentils. He was an inspirational teacher who went on to become the Director General of the International Board for Plant Genetic Resources (IBPGR) in Rome. The last time I spoke with Trevor was in 2012 when he phoned me one evening to congratulate me on being awarded an OBE. He passed away in 2015.
  • Roger joined CIP in July 1973 as Head of the Breeding and Genetics Department, from the USDA Potato Collection in Wisconsin. He was my first boss in the CGIAR, and I learnt a lot from him about research and project management. We are still in touch.
  • John was an eminent plant pathologist whose work on late blight of potatoes in Mexico led to important discoveries about the pathogen and the nature of resistance in wild potato species. John and I worked closely from 1978 to set up PRECODEPA. He had one of the sharpest (and wittiest) minds I’ve come across. John passed away in 2005.
  • Ken Brown

    Ken was a fantastic person to work with—he knew just how to manage people, was very supportive, and the last thing he ever tried to do was micromanage other people’s work. I learnt a great deal about program and people management from him.


[1] Harlan, JR and JMJ de Wet, 1971. Toward a rational classification of cultivated plants. Taxon 20, 509-517.

[2] Jackson, MT. L Taylor and AJ Thomson 1985. Inbreeding and true potato seed production. In: Report of a Planning Conference on Innovative Methods for Propagating Potatoes, held at Lima, Peru, December 10-14,1984, pp. 169-79.

[3] Jackson, MT, 1987. Breeding strategies for true potato seed. In: GJ Jellis & DE Richardson (eds), The Production of New Potato Varieties: Technological Advances. Cambridge University Press, pp. 248-261.


 

Have [botany] degree . . . will travel (#iamabotanist)

One thing I had known from a young boy was that I wanted to see the world; and work overseas if possible. Following somewhat in the footsteps of my parents, Fred and Lilian Jackson.

Who would have thought that a degree in botany would open up so many opportunities?

Come 1 January, it will be 47 years since I joined the staff of the International Potato Center (CIP) in Lima, Peru, and the start of a 37 year career in the plant sciences: as a researcher, teacher, and manager. Where has the time flown?

After eight years in South and Central America, I spent a decade on the faculty of the School of Biological Sciences at the University of Birmingham. Then, in 1991, I headed to Southeast Asia, spending almost 19 years at the International Rice Research Institute (IRRI) in the Philippines, before retiring in 2010.

However, I have to admit that Lady Luck has often been on my side, because my academic career didn’t get off to an auspicious start and almost thwarted my ambitions.

While I enjoyed my BSc degree course at the University of Southampton (in environmental botany and geography) I was frankly not a very talented nor particularly industrious student. I just didn’t know how to study, and always came up short in exams. And, on reflection, I guess I burnt the candle more at one end than the other.

It would hard to underestimate just how disappointed I was, in June 1970, to learn I’d been awarded a Lower Second Class (2ii) degree, not the Upper Second (2i) that I aspired to. I could have kicked myself. Why had I not applied myself better?

But redemption was on the horizon.

Prof. Jack Hawkes

In February 1970, Professor Jack Hawkes (head of the Department of Botany at the University of Birmingham) interviewed me for a place on the MSc Course Conservation and Utilization of Plant Genetic Resources, that had opened its doors to the first cohort some months earlier. I must have made a favorable impression, because he offered me a place for September.

But how was I to support myself for the one year course, and pay the tuition  fees? I didn’t have any private means and, in 1970, the Course had not yet been recognized for designated studentships by any of the UK’s research councils.

Through the summer months I was on tenterhooks, and with the end of August approaching, started seriously to think about finding a job instead.

Then salvation arrived in the form of a phone call from Professor Hawkes, that the university had awarded me a modest studentship to cover living expenses and accommodation (about £5 a week, or equivalent to about £66 in today’s money) as well as paying the tuition fees. I could hardly believe the good news.

Prof. Trevor Williams

By the middle of September I joined four other students (from Venezuela, Pakistan, Turkey, and Nigeria) to learn all about the importance of crop plant diversity. Over the next year, discovered my academic mojo. I completed my MSc dissertation on lentils under Course Tutor (and future Director General of the International Board for Plant Genetic Resources, now Bioversity International), Professor Trevor Williams.

Starting a career in international agricultural research
Just before Christmas 1970, Hawkes traveled to Peru and Bolivia to collect wild potatoes. On his return in February 1971, he dangled the possibility of a one year position in Peru (somewhere I had always wanted to visit) to manage the potato germplasm collection at CIP while a Peruvian researcher came to Birmingham for training on the MSc Course. Then, in mid-summer, CIP’s Director General, Dr. Richard Sawyer, visited Birmingham and confirmed the position at CIP beginning in September 1971.

But things didn’t exactly go to plan. Funding from the British government’s overseas development aid budget to support my position at CIP didn’t materialise until January 1973. So, during the intervening 15 months, I began a PhD research project on potatoes (under the supervision of Professor Hawkes), continuing with that particular project as part of my overall duties once I’d joined CIP in Lima, under the co-supervision of Dr. Roger Rowe. That work took me all over the Andes—by road, on horseback, and on foot—collecting native varieties of potatoes for the CIP genebank.

Screening potatoes in Turrialba, Costa Rica for resistance to bacterial wilt.

After successfully completing my PhD in December 1975, I transferred to CIP’s Outreach Program in Central America, moved to Costa Rica for the next 4½ years, and began research on potato diseases, adaptation of potatoes to warm climates, and seed production. This was quite a change from my thesis research, but I acquired valuable experience about many different aspects of potato production. I learnt to grow a crop of potatoes!

But this posting was not just about research. After a year, my regional leader (based in Mexico) moved to the USA to pursue his PhD, and CIP asked me to take over as regional research leader. Thus I began to develop an interest in and (if I might be permitted to say) a flair for research management. In this role I traveled extensively throughout Central America and Mexico, and the Caribbean Islands, and helped to found and establish one of the most enduring and successful research partnerships between national research programs and any international agricultural research institute: PRECODEPA.

Then, just as I was thinking about a move to CIP’s regional office in the Philippines (for Southeast Asia), an entirely different opportunity opened up, and we moved back to the UK.

Back to Birmingham
In January 1981 I successfully applied for a Lectureship in my old department (now named the Department of Plant Biology) at Birmingham. I said goodbye to CIP in March 1981, and embarked on the next stage of my career: teaching botany.

The lectureship had been created to ensure continuity of teaching in various aspects of the conservation and use of plant genetic resources (and other topics) after Professor Hawkes’ retirement in September 1982. I assumed his particular teaching load, in crop plant evolution and germplasm collecting on the MSc Course, and flowering plant taxonomy to second year undergraduates, as well as developing other courses at both undergraduate and graduate level.

In addition to my continuing research interest on potatoes I assembled a large collection of Lathyrus species and one PhD student from Malaysia made an excellent study of species relationships of the one cultivated species, the grasspea, L. sativus. I successfully supervised (or co-supervised) the theses of nine other PhD students (and at least a couple of dozen MSc students) during the decade I spent at Birmingham.

I generally enjoyed the teaching and interaction with students more than research. Having struggled as an undergraduate myself, I think I could empathise with students who found themselves in the same boat, so-to-speak. I took my tutor/tutee responsibilities very seriously. In fact, I did and still believe that providing appropriate and timely tutorial advice to undergraduates was one of the more important roles I had. My door was always open for tutees to drop by, to discuss any issues in addition to the more formal meetings we had on a fortnightly basis when we’d discuss some work they had prepared for me, and I gave feedback.

While I appreciate that university staff are under increasing pressures to perform nowadays (more research, more grants, more papers) I just cannot accept that many consider their tutor responsibilities so relatively unimportant, assigning just an hour or so a week (or less) when they make themselves accessible by their tutees.

The 1980s were a turbulent time in the UK. Politics were dominated by the Tories under Margaret Thatcher. And government policies came to significantly affect the higher education sector. By the end of the decade I was feeling rather disillusioned by university life, and although I was pretty confident of promotion to Senior Lecturer, I also knew that if any other opportunity came along, I would look at it seriously.

And in September 1990 just such an opportunity did come along, in the form of an announcement that IRRI was recruiting a head for the newly-created Genetic Resources Center.

Dr. Klaus Lampe

A return to international agriculture
It was early January 1991, and I was on a delayed flight to Hong Kong on my way to the Philippines for an interview. Arriving in Los Baños around 1 am (rather than 3 pm the previous afternoon), I had just a few hours sleep before a breakfast meeting with the Director General, Dr. Klaus Lampe and his two deputies. Severely jet-lagged, I guess I more or less sleep-walked through the next three days of interviews, as well as delivering a seminar. And the outcome? IRRI offered me the position at the end of January, and I moved to the Philippines on 1 July remaining there for almost 19 years.

For the first ten years, management of the International Rice Genebank (the world’s largest collection of rice varieties and wild species) was my main priority. I have written about many aspects of running a genebank in this blog, as well as discussing the dual roles of genebank management and scientific research. So I won’t repeat that here. Making sure the rice germplasm was safe and conserved in the genebank to the highest standards were the focus of my early efforts. We looked at better ways of growing diverse varieties in the single environment of IRRI’s Experiment Station, and overhauled the genebank data management system. We also spent time studying the diversity of rice varieties and wild species, eventually using a whole array of molecular markers and, in the process, establishing excellent collaboration with former colleagues at the University of Birmingham and the John Innes Centre in Norwich, UK.

Dr. Ron Cantrell

Then, one day in early 2001, IRRI’s Director General, Dr. Ron Cantrell, called me to his office, asking me to give up genebanking and join the institute’s senior management team as Director for Program Planning and Communications. As I said earlier, I really enjoyed management, but wasn’t sure I wanted to leave research (and genetic resources) behind altogether. But after some serious soul-searching, I did move across in May 2001 and remained in that position until my retirement in April 2010.

Even in that position, my background and experience in the plant sciences was invaluable. All research project proposals for example passed through my office for review and submission to various donors for funding. I was able not only look at the feasibility of any given project in terms of its objectives and proposed outcomes within the project timeframe, I could comment on many of the specific scientific aspects and highlight any inconsistencies. Because we had a well-structured project proposal development and submission process, the quality of IRRI projects increased, as well as the number that were successfully supported. IRRI’s budget increased to new levels, and confidence in the institute’s research strategy and agenda gained increased confidence among its donors.

What a good decision I made all those years ago to study botany. I achieved that early ambition to travel all over the world (>60 countries in connection with my work) in North and South America, Europe, Africa, Asia, and Australia. But the study (and use) of plants gave me so much more. I used the knowledge and experience gained to help transform lives of some of the poorest farmers and their families, by contributing to efforts to grow better yielding crops, more resilient to climate change, and resistant to diseases.

I’m sure that a degree in botany would be the last in many people’s minds as leading to so many opportunities such as I enjoyed. Knowing that opportunities are out there is one thing. Seizing those opportunities is quite another. And I seized them with both hands. I never looked back.

I should also mention that I also ascribe some of my success to having had excellent mentors—many mentioned in this piece—throughout my career to whom I could turn for advice. Thank you!

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If you are interested, a list of my scientific output (papers, book, book chapters, conference presentations and the like) can be seen here.

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Management and science – are they equally important roles for a genebank manager?

There’s an interesting article by Nicola Temple and Michael Major (science communications specialists for Scriptoria and the Crop Trust, respectively), on the Genebank Platform website, about Dr David Ellis who retired at the end of 2018 as head of the genebank at the International Potato Center (CIP) in Lima, Peru (where I began my career in international agricultural research in January 1973).

Titled David Ellis: Finding the balance between manager and scientist, the article describes David’s illustrious career, and highlights an important issue that many genebank managers face. Let me quote directly what they wrote:

David argues that genebank managers need to balance science with the management of their collections. “If you focus purely on the science, then management of the genebank suffers,” he says. “If you focus solely on being a genebank manager, then you are never viewed by your scientific peers as a research scientist and that can mean fewer opportunities for collaboration.”

His perspectives—which I fully endorse—resonated with me, and got me thinking about the time, almost 30 years ago, when I joined the International Rice Research Institute (IRRI) in the Philippines as Head of the newly-created Genetic Resources Center (GRC) with responsibility for (among other things) the internationally-important rice genebank, the International Rice Germplasm Center that, in the fullness of time, we renamed the International Rice Genebank. I was head of GRC for a decade, after which I changed roles at IRRI, and relinquishing all my genetic resources responsibilities.

A career in genetic resources
By July 1991, I’d already been working on the conservation and use of plant genetic resources for twenty years. I’d studied at the University of Birmingham under Professor Jack Hawkes and Professor Trevor Williams, and had forged a career at CIP (in Peru and Central America) for over eight years, before returning to Birmingham to join the faculty of the School of Biological Sciences (helping to train the next generation of germplasm scientists).

However, until joining IRRI, I’d never managed a genebank.

I first heard about the job at IRRI in September 1990, when a position announcement landed on my desk in the morning post. I was intrigued. Who had sent this to me? At the same time, the thought of running a genebank was rather attractive, because by 1990 I had become somewhat disillusioned with academic life.

The IRRI position represented an opportunity to return to international agricultural research that I had enjoyed during my years with CIP from 1973-1981.

As initially advertised, the Head of the Genetic Resources Center position was described merely as a service role with no assigned research responsibilities whatsoever. The Head would report directly to the Deputy Director General (International Programs)—not the DDG (Research).

On the positive side, however, the position would be equivalent to other Division Heads and Program Leaders giving the incumbent an opportunity to represent the genebank directly in institute management discussions.

Having sent in my application, I traveled to the Philippines in early January 1991 for an interview, and was offered the position three weeks later. During the interview(s), and in the subsequent negotiations to iron out the terms and conditions of my appointment, I made it a condition of accepting that I (and my future GRC staff) would have a research role. Indeed, without that commitment and support from senior management, I was not interested in the position. I can be persuasive. My viewpoint prevailed!

Learning about genebanking – on the job
Management and science are almost equally important roles. But not quite. Management and safety of any genebank collection (including making it available to users worldwide) must always be the top priority.

Dr TT Chang

Before 1991 there had been just one person—eminent rice geneticist and upland rice breeder, Dr TT Chang—as head of the genebank for about thirty years. Very quickly I realised that some important changes must be made, and the best known genebank practices and standards adopted. And that’s where I focused my efforts for the first three years of my tenure in GRC.

Initially I had to immerse myself in how the genebank was being managed, especially in terms of staffing needs and people management, and to develop a plan to make it run much more efficiently. That meant identifying and appointing staff to lead critical functions in the genebank like seed conservation, field operations (multiplication of genebank accessions and rejuvenation), characterization, or data management. Finding or assigning existing staff for the right roles.

What I did find was a highly motivated and professional staff who had never received any real guidance as to their roles, nor had they been given any specific responsibilities. As a consequence, productivity was rather low, as different members of staff overlapped in their day-to-day activities, sometimes at cross purposes.

It took me about six months to understand just how the genebank functioned, and how many operations needed to be updated. But I also had the tricky task of ‘side-lining’ the most senior of the national staff, Eves Loresto, from the line of communication to me from other staff members. She had been Dr Chang’s assistant, and nothing reached him from the staff unless it passed through her first. This was, I felt, an obvious obstacle to accomplishing the necessary changes to staff roles and productivity. Ultimately I found her an important role in leading various components of an externally-funded biodiversity project (by the Swiss government) that I couldn’t have managed on my own.

It took about three years, but we overhauled almost everything that the genebank did (and producing an important manual of genebank operations, something that all CGIAR genebanks are now expected to have). One of the key problem areas was data management, a complete nightmare, as I have described elsewhere on my blog.

We brought all field operations back on to the IRRI Experiment Station, and through investment in facilities, we were able to remodel and upgrade the genebank cold stores, the seed testing laboratory, and germplasm handling protocols for responding efficiently to requests for rice germplasm, in conjunction with the Seed Health Unit which handled all aspects of quarantine and phytosanitary certification for import and export of rice seeds.

We also made sure that the collection was fully duplicated at the USDA National Laboratory for Genetic Resources Preservation in Fort Collins, CO, an initiative that had begun under my predecessor, but needed acceleration.

By the time of the first CGIAR system-wide review of genebanks that was completed in 1994-95, IRRI’s genebank was rated as ‘a model for others to emulate‘. While IRRI did invest in the genebank (improved configuration of storage rooms, laboratories, seed drying, etc.), much of what we achieved in the genebank did not actually require much additional or even special funding. Just a realignment of the way the genebank operated. And a lot of hard work by great staff to make the necessary improvements. I can’t stress too much how important it was to have the staff onside, and spending much effort in people management, including having more than 70% of all positions in GRC upgraded and staff promoted.

You can see much of how the genebank operates in this video below. And while it’s true that my successor, Dr Ruaraidh Sackville Hamilton built on the improvements made during the 1990s, we achieved the current genebank standards, and this permitted IRRI to move to the next level and meet its obligations and performance targets under the current funding structure of the Genebank Platform.

As the staff grew into their roles in the genebank, there was more opportunity to reach out to national rice programs around Asia, as well in Africa and Latin America. We helped train a large cadre of national scientists in genebank data management and, to accompany germplasm collecting, we offered practical workshops. National programs then shared collected germplasm with IRRI, and the size of the International Rice Genebank Collection grew by about 25% between 1995 and 2000. Overall, there were 48 courses in 14 countries. For details, see the project final report.

Turning to research
In July 1991, GRC had essentially no research profile whatsoever. Just a few minor studies, tinkering around the edges of research. From 1994 or thereabouts, that all changed. We invested time, people, and funds to:

  • Study the effects of seed production environment and seed quality and survival in storage;
  • Understand the diversity of rice using molecular markers;
  • Clarify the taxonomy of rice species, primarily those most closely related to Oryza sativa, the rice grown widely around the world; and
  • Understand the dynamics of rice conservation by farmers from the joint perspectives of population genetics and social anthropology.

Because we started from such a low base, I decided to forge important collaborations with several research groups to kick-start our research efforts.

Dr Kameswara Rao

In terms of seed production (and seed conservation), we had an excellent collaboration with Professor Richard Ellis at the University of Reading in the UK. We also hired a postdoc, Dr Kameswara Rao (from ICRISAT in Hyderabad, India) to work at IRRI on these joint projects. Kameswara had completed his PhD at Reading under the supervision of Professor Eric Roberts. After leaving IRRI, Kameswara joined the genebank program at the International Center for Biosaline Agriculture in Dubai, UAE; he has since retired.

Dr Parminder Virk

The use of molecular markers to study crop diversity was in its infancy in the early 1990s, although as I pointed out in a recent blog post, a number of molecular approaches had been used during the 1980s and earlier in different labs. We partnered with my former colleagues at the University of Birmingham, Professors Brian Ford-Lloyd and John Newbury (now retired) and Dr Parminder Virk (who eventually joined IRRI as a rice breeder and is now with the HarvestPlus program in India), in collaboration with the late Professor Mike Gale’s group at the John Innes Centre in Norwich.

These were highly effective collaborations, and we also built up our in-house capacity by sending one of the GRC staff for short-term training at Birmingham (sponsored by the British Council) while developing a molecular marker laboratory in GRC.

We undertook all taxonomy research in-house, and hired Dr Lu Bao-Rong from China to lead this effort. We also assigned two staff full-time to the molecular and taxonomy research, and support staff as well.

The on-farm conservation research was one component of the Swiss-funded biodiversity project I referred to earlier. One scientist, Dr Jean-Louis Pham came to IRRI from the French public research institution IRD in Montpellier to head the on-farm group.

I think we accomplished a great deal in the decade I was in charge of the International Rice Genebank. We established a solid foundation to take the genebank forward over the next two decades. I have listed below most of the GRC publications that appeared during this period. Links to PDF files of many of the papers can be found here.

The molecular marker and genomics research was strengthened in 2001 (as I was coming to the end of my tenure in GRC) with the appointment of Dr Ken McNally.

Dr Ken McNally and Dr Fiona Hay

Around 2002 a seed physiologist, Dr Fiona Hay, joined GRC and although she has now moved to Aarhus University in Denmark, her research on seed drying and storage contributed significantly towards safeguarding this valuable germplasm collection.

Looking back on the 1990s, I think GRC can be proud of its research output. We did, as David Ellis proposed, establish our scientific credibility and, in a number of forums, took that message out to the wider scientific community and the public at large. Always, however, knowing that the genebank collection was safe for the long term, and available and accessible to everyone around the world who had need of germplasm to improve rice—which is, after all, the world’s most important staple crop.

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Genebank management (papers in peer-reviewed journals are shown in red, book chapter in blue)
Alcantara, A.P., E.B. Guevarra & M.T. Jackson, 1999. The International Rice Genebank Collection Information System. Poster presented at the annual meeting of the Crop Science Society of America, Salt Lake City, October 31-November 4, 1999.

Ford-Lloyd, B.V., M.T. Jackson & H.J. Newbury, 1997. Molecular markers and the management of genetic resources in seed genebanks: a case study of rice. In: J.A. Callow, B.V. Ford-Lloyd & H.J. Newbury (eds.), Biotechnology and Plant Genetic Resources: Conservation and Use. CAB International, Wallingford, pp. 103-118. 

Hunt, E.D., M.T. Jackson, M. Oliva & A. Alcantara, 1993. Employing geographical information systems (GIS) for conserving and using rice germplasm. Poster presented at the 17th International Congress of Genetics, Birmingham, U.K., August 15-21, 1993. Volume of abstracts, 117.

Jackson, M.T. & G.C. Loresto, 1996. The role of the International Rice Research Institute (IRRI) in supporting national and regional programs. Invited paper presented at the Asia-Pacific Consultation Meeting on Plant Genetic Resources, held in New Delhi, India, November 27-29, 1996.

Jackson, M.T. & R.D. Huggan, 1993. Sharing the diversity of rice to feed the world. Diversity 9, 22-25.

Jackson, M.T. & R.D. Huggan, 1996. Pflanzenvielfalt als Grundlage der Welternährung. Bulletin—das magazin der Schweizerische Kreditanstalt SKA. March/April 1996, 9-10.

Jackson, M.T. & R.J.L. Lettington, 2003. Conservation and use of rice germplasm: an evolving paradigm under the International Treaty on Plant Genetic Resources for Food and Agriculture. In: Sustainable rice production for food security. Proceedings of the 20th Session of the International Rice Commission. Bangkok, Thailand, 23-26 July 2002.
http://www.fao.org/DOCREP/006/Y4751E/y4751e07.htm#bm07. Invited paper. 

Jackson, M.T., 1993. Biotechnology and the conservation and use of plant genetic resources. Invited paper presented at the Workshop on Biotechnology in Developing Countries, held at the 17th International Congress of Genetics, Birmingham, U.K., August 15-21, 1993.

Jackson, M.T., 1994. Care for and use of biodiversity in rice. Invited paper presented at the Symposium on Food Security in Asia, held at the Royal Society, London, November 1, 1994.

Jackson, M.T., 1994. Ex situ conservation of plant genetic resources, with special reference to rice. In: G. Prain & C. Bagalanon (eds.), Local Knowledge, Global Science and Plant Genetic Resources: towards a partnership. Proceedings of the International Workshop on Genetic Resources, UPWARD, Los Baños, Philippines, pp. 11-22.

Jackson, M.T., 1994. Preservation of rice strains. Nature 371, 470.

Jackson, M.T., 1995. Protecting the heritage of rice biodiversity. GeoJournal 35, 267-274. 

Jackson, M.T., 1995. The international crop germplasm collections: seeds in the bank! Invited paper presented at the meeting Economic and Policy Research for Genetic Resources Conservation and Use: a Technical Consultation, held at IFPRI, Washington, D.C., June 21-22, 1995

Jackson, M.T., 1996. Intellectual property rights—the approach of the International Rice Research Institute. Invited paper presented at the Satellite Symposium on Biotechnology and Biodiversity: Scientific and Ethical Issues, held in New Delhi, India, November 15-16, 1996.

Jackson, M.T., 1997. Conservation of rice genetic resources—the role of the International Rice Genebank at IRRI. Plant Molecular Biology 35, 61-67. 

Jackson, M.T., 1998. Intellectual property rights—the approach of the International Rice Research Institute. Invited paper at the Seminar-Workshop on Plant Patents in Asia Pacific, organized by the Asia & Pacific Seed Association (APSA), held in Manila, Philippines, September 21-22, 1998.

Jackson, M.T., 1998. Recent developments in IPR that have implications for the CGIAR. Invited paper presented at the ICLARM Science Day, International Center for Living Aquatic Resources Management, Manila, Philippines, September 30, 1998.

Jackson, M.T., 1998. The role of the CGIAR’s System-wide Genetic Resources Programme (SGRP) in implementing the GPA. Invited paper presented at the Regional Meeting for Asia and the Pacific to facilitate and promote the implementation of the Global Plan of Action for the Conservation and Sustainable Use of Plant Genetic Resources for Food and Agriculture, held in Manila, Philippines, December 15-18, 1998.

Jackson, M.T., 1999. Managing genetic resources and biotechnology at IRRI’s rice genebank. In: J.I. Cohen (ed.), Managing Agricultural Biotechnology – Addressing Research Program and Policy Implications. International Service for National Agricultural Research (ISNAR), The Hague, Netherlands and CAB International, UK, pp. 102-109. 

Jackson, M.T., 1999. Managing the world’s largest collection of rice genetic resources. In: J.N. Rutger, J.F. Robinson & R.H. Dilday (eds.), Proceedings of the International Symposium on Rice Germplasm Evaluation and Enhancement, held at the Dale Bumpers National Rice Research Center, Stuttgart, Arkansas, USA, August 30-September 2, 1998. Arkansas Agricultural Experiment Station Special Report 195.

Jackson, M.T., 2004. Achieving the UN Millennium Development Goals begins with rice research. Invited paper presented to the Cross Party International Development Group of the Scottish Parliament, Edinburgh, Scotland, June 2, 2004.

Jackson, M.T., A. Alcantara, E. Guevarra, M. Oliva, M. van den Berg, S. Erguiza, R. Gallego & M. Estor, 1995. Documentation and data management for rice genetic resources at IRRI. Paper presented at the Planning Meeting for the System-wide Information Network for Genetic Resources (SINGER), held at CIMMYT, Mexico, October 2-6, 1995.

Jackson, M.T., B.R. Lu, G.C. Loresto & F. de Guzman, 1995. The conservation of rice genetic resources at the International Rice Research Institute. Paper presented at the International Symposium on Research and Utilization of Crop Germplasm Resources held in Beijing, People’s Republic of China, June 1-3, 1995.

Jackson, M.T., F.C. de Guzman, R.A. Reaño, M.S.R. Almazan, A.P. Alcantara & E.B. Guevarra, 1999. Managing the world’s largest collection of rice genetic resources. Poster presented at the annual meeting of the Crop Science Society of America, Salt Lake City, October 31-November 4, 1999.

Jackson, M.T., G.C. Loresto & A.P. Alcantara, 1993. The International Rice Germplasm Center at IRRI. In: The Egyptian Society of Plant Breeding (1993). Crop Genetic Resources in Egypt: Present Status and Future Prospects. Papers of an ESPB Workshop, Giza, Egypt, March 2-3, 1992.

Jackson, M.T., G.C. Loresto & F. de Guzman, 1996. Partnership for genetic conservation and use: the International Rice Genebank at the International Rice Research Institute (IRRI). Poster presented at the Beltsville Symposium XXI on Global Genetic Resources—Access, Ownership, and Intellectual Property Rights, held in Beltsville, Maryland, May 19-22, 1996.

Jackson, M.T., G.C. Loresto, S. Appa Rao, M. Jones, E. Guimaraes & N.Q. Ng, 1997. Rice. In: D. Fuccillo, L. Sears & P. Stapleton (eds.), Biodiversity in Trust: Conservation and Use of Plant Genetic Resources in CGIAR Centres. Cambridge University Press, pp. 273-291. 

Jackson, M.T., J.L. Pham, H.J. Newbury, B.V. Ford-Lloyd & P.S. Virk, 1999. A core collection for rice—needs, opportunities and constraints. In: R.C. Johnson & T. Hodgkin (eds.), Core collections for today and tomorrow. International Plant Genetic Resources Institute, Rome, Italy, pp. 18-27.

Koo, B., P.G. Pardey & M.T. Jackson, 2004. IRRI Genebank. In: B. Koo, P.G. Pardey, B.D. Wright and others, Saving Seeds – The Economics of Conserving Crop Genetic Resources Ex Situ in the Future Harvest Centres of the CGIAR. CABI Publishing, Wallingford, pp. 89-103. 

Loresto, G.C. & M.T. Jackson, 1992. Rice germplasm conservation: a program of international collaboration. In: F. Cuevas-Pérez (ed.), Rice in Latin America: Improvement, Management, and Marketing. Proceedings of the VIII international rice conference for Latin America and the Caribbean, held in Villahermosa, Tabasco, Mexico, November 10-16, 1991. Centro Internacional de Agricultura Tropical, Cali, Colombia, pp. 61-65.

Loresto, G.C. & M.T. Jackson, 1996. South Asia partnerships forged to conserve rice genetic resources. Diversity 12, 60-61.

Loresto, G.C., E. Guevarra & M.T. Jackson, 2000. Use of conserved rice germplasm. Plant Genetic Resources Newsletter 124, 51-56. 

Lu, B.R., A. Juliano, E. Naredo & M.T. Jackson, 1995. The conservation and study of wild Oryza species at the International Rice Research Institute. Paper presented at the International Symposium on Research and Utilization of Crop Germplasm Resources held in Beijing, People’s Republic of China, June 1-3, 1995.

Newbury, H.J., B.V. Ford-Lloyd, P.S. Virk, M.T. Jackson, M.D. Gale & J.-H. Zhu, 1996. Molecular markers and their use in organising plant germplasm collections. In: E.M. Young (ed.), Plant Sciences Research Programme Conference on Semi-Arid Systems. Proceedings of an ODA Plant Sciences Research Programme Conference , Manchester, UK, September 5-6, 1995, pp. 24-25.

Vaughan, D.A. & M.T. Jackson, 1995. The core as a guide to the whole collection. In: T. Hodgkin, A.H.D. Brown, Th.J.L. van Hintum & E.A.V. Morales (eds.), Core Collections of Plant Genetic Resources. John Wiley & Sons, Chichester, pp. 229-239. 

Germplasm collection
Appa Rao, S., C. Bounphanousay, J.M. Schiller & M.T. Jackson, 2002. Collection, classification, and conservation of cultivated and wild rices of the Lao PDR. Genetic Resources and Crop Evolution 49, 75-81. 

Appa Rao, S., C. Bounphanousay, K. Kanyavong, B. Sengthong, J.M. Schiller & M.T. Jackson, 1999. Collection and classification of Lao rice germplasm, Part 4. Collection Period: September to December 1998. Internal report of the National Agricultural Research Center, National Agriculture and Forestry Research Institute, Ministry of Agriculture and Forestry, Vientiane, Lao PDR, and Genetic Resources Center, International Rice Research Institute (IRRI), Los Baños, Philippines.

Appa Rao, S., C. Bounphanousay, K. Kanyavong, V. Phetpaseuth, B. Sengthong, J.M. Schiller, S. Thirasack & M.T. Jackson, 1997. Collection and classification of rice germplasm from the Lao PDR. Part 2. Northern, Southern and Central Regions. Internal report of the National Agricultural Research Center, Department of Agriculture and Extension, Ministry of Agriculture and Forestry, Vientiane, Lao PDR, and Genetic Resources Center, International Rice Research Institute (IRRI), Los Baños, Philippines.

Appa Rao, S., C. Bounphanousay, V. Phetpaseuth, K. Kanyavong, B. Sengthong, J. M. Schiller, V. Phannourath & M.T. Jackson, 1996. Collection and classification of rice germplasm from the Lao PDR. Part 1. Southern and Central Regions – 1995. Internal report of the National Agricultural Research Center, Dept. of Agriculture and Extension, Ministry of Agriculture and Forestry, Vientiane, Lao PDR, and Genetic Resources Center, International Rice Research Institute (IRRI), Los Baños, Philippines.

Appa Rao, S., C. Bounphanousay, V. Phetpaseuth, K. Kanyavong, B. Sengthong, J.M. Schiller & M.T. Jackson, 1998. Collection and Classification of Lao Rice Germplasm Part 3. Collecting Period – October 1997 to February 1998. Internal report of the National Agricultural Research Center, National Agriculture and Forestry Research Institute, Ministry of Agriculture and Forestry, Vientiane, Lao PDR, and Genetic Resources Center, International Rice Research Institute (IRRI), Los Baños, Philippines.

Appa Rao, S., C. Bounphanouxay, J.M. Schiller & M.T. Jackson, 1999. Collecting Rice Genetic Resources in the Lao PDR. Poster presented at the annual meeting of the Crop Science Society of America, Salt Lake City, October 31-November 4, 1999.

Appa Rao, S., C. Bounphanouxay, V. Phetpaseut, J.M. Schiller, V. Phannourath & M.T. Jackson, 1997. Collection and preservation of rice germplasm from southern and central regions of the Lao PDR. Lao Journal of Agriculture and Forestry 1, 43-56. 

Dao The Tuan, Nguyen Dang Khoi, Luu Ngoc Trinh, Nguyen Phung Ha, Nguyen Vu Trong, D.A. Vaughan & M.T. Jackson, 1995. INSA-IRRI collaboration on wild rice collection in Vietnam. In: G.L. Denning & Vo-Tong Xuan (eds.), Vietnam and IRRI: A partnership in rice research. International Rice Research Institute, Los Baños, Philippines, and Ministry of Agriculture and Food Industry, Hanoi, Vietnam, pp. 85-88.

Jackson, M.T., 2001. Collecting plant genetic resources: partnership or biopiracy. Invited paper presented at the annual meeting of the Crop Science Society of America, Charlotte, North Carolina, October 21-24, 2001.

Kiambi, D.K., B.V. Ford-Lloyd, M.T. Jackson, L. Guarino, N. Maxted & H.J. Newbury, 2005. Collection of wild rice (Oryza L.) in east and southern Africa in response to genetic erosion. Plant Genetic Resources Newsletter 142, 10-20. 

Seed conservation and regeneration
Ellis, R.H. & M.T. Jackson, 1995. Accession regeneration in genebanks: seed production environment and the potential longevity of seed accessions. Plant Genetic Resources Newsletter 102, 26-28. 

Ellis, R.H., T.D. Hong & M.T. Jackson, 1993. Seed production environment, time of harvest, and the potential longevity of seeds of three cultivars of rice (Oryza sativa L.). Annals of Botany 72, 583-590. 

Kameswara Rao, N. & M.T. Jackson, 1995. Seed production strategies for conservation of rice genetic resources. Poster presented at the Fifth International Workshop on Seeds, University of Reading, September 11-15, 1995.

Kameswara Rao, N. & M.T. Jackson, 1996. Effect of sowing date and harvest time on longevity of rice seeds. Seed Science Research 7, 13-20. 

Kameswara Rao, N. & M.T. Jackson, 1996. Seed longevity of rice cultivars and strategies for their conservation in genebanks. Annals of Botany 77, 251-260. 

Kameswara Rao, N. & M.T. Jackson, 1996. Seed production environment and storage longevity of japonica rices (Oryza sativa L.). Seed Science Research 6, 17-21. 

Kameswara Rao, N. & M.T. Jackson, 1997. Variation in seed longevity of rice cultivars belonging to different isozyme groups. Genetic Resources and Crop Evolution 44, 159-164. 

Naredo, M.E.B., A.B. Juliano, B.R. Lu, F. de Guzman & M.T. Jackson, 1998. Responses to seed dormancy-breaking treatments in rice species (Oryza L.). Seed Science and Technology 26, 675-689. 

Reaño, R., M.T. Jackson, F. de Guzman, S. Almazan & G.C. Loresto, 1995. The multiplication and regeneration of rice germplasm at the International Rice Genebank, IRRI. Paper presented at the Discussion Meeting on Regeneration Standards, held at ICRISAT, Hyderabad, India, December 4-7, 1995, sponsored by IPGRI, ICRISAT and FAO.

On-farm conservation
Appa Rao, S., J.M. Schiller, C. Bounphanousay & M.T. Jackson, 2006. Development of traditional rice varieties and on-farm management of varietal diversity in Laos. In: J.M. Schiller, M.B. Chanphengxay, B. Linquist & S. Appa Rao (eds.), Rice in Laos. Los Baños (Philippines): International Rice Research Institute, pp. 187-196. 

Bellon, M.R., J.L. Pham & M.T. Jackson, 1997. Genetic conservation: a role for rice farmers. In: N. Maxted, B.V. Ford-Lloyd & J.G. Hawkes (eds.), Plant Genetic Conservation: the In Situ Approach. Chapman & Hall, London, pp. 263-289. 

Jackson, M.T., 2001. Rice: diversity and livelihood for farmers in Asia. Invited paper presented in the symposium Cultural Heritage and Biodiversity, at the annual meeting of the Crop Science Society of America, Charlotte, North Carolina, October 21-24, 2001.

Morin, S.R., J.L. Pham, M. Calibo, G. Abrigo, D. Erasga, M. Garcia, & M.T. Jackson, 1998. On farm conservation research: assessing rice diversity and indigenous technical knowledge. Invited paper presented at the Workshop on Participatory Plant Breeding, held in New Delhi, March 23-24, 1998.

Morin, S.R., J.L. Pham, M. Calibo, M. Garcia & M.T. Jackson, 1998. Catastrophes and genetic diversity: creating a model of interaction between genebanks and farmers. Paper presented at the FAO meeting on the Global Plan of Action on Plant Genetic Resources for Food and Agriculture for the Asia-Pacific Region, held in Manila, Philippines, December 15-18, 1998.

Pham J.L., S.R. Morin & M.T. Jackson, 2000. Linking genebanks and participatory conservation and management. Invited paper presented at the International Symposium on The Scientific Basis of Participatory Plant Breeding and Conservation of Genetic Resources, held at Oaxtepec, Morelos, Mexico, October 9-12, 2000.

Pham, J.L., M.R. Bellon & M.T. Jackson, 1995. A research program on on-farm conservation of rice genetic resources. Poster presented at the Third International Rice Genetics Symposium, Manila, Philippines, October 16-20, 1995.

Pham, J.L., M.R. Bellon & M.T. Jackson, 1996. A research program for on-farm conservation of rice genetic resources. International Rice Research Notes 21, 10-11.

Pham, J.L., M.R. Bellon & M.T. Jackson, 1996. What is on-farm conservation research on rice genetic resources? In: J.T. Williams, C.H. Lamoureux & S.D. Sastrapradja (eds.), South East Asian Plant Genetic Resources. Proceedings of the Third South East Asian Regional Symposium on Genetic Resources, Serpong, Indonesia, August 22-24, 1995, pp. 54-65.

Pham, J.L., S.R. Morin, L.S. Sebastian, G.A. Abrigo, M.A. Calibo, S.M. Quilloy, L. Hipolito & M.T. Jackson, 2002. Rice, farmers and genebanks: a case study in the Cagayan Valley, Philippines. In: J.M.M. Engels, V.R. Rao, A.H.D. Brown & M.T. Jackson (eds.), Managing Plant Genetic Diversity. CAB International, Wallingford, pp. 149-160. 

Taxonomy of rice species
Aggarwal, R.K., D.S. Brar, G.S. Khush & M.T. Jackson, 1996. Oryza schlechteri Pilger has a distinct genome based on molecular analysis. Rice Genetics Newsletter 13, 58-59.

Juliano, A.B., M.E.B. Naredo & M.T. Jackson, 1998. Taxonomic status of Oryza glumaepatula Steud. I. Comparative morphological studies of New World diploids and Asian AA genome species. Genetic Resources and Crop Evolution 45, 197-203. 

Juliano, A.B., M.E.B. Naredo, B.R. Lu & M.T. Jackson, 2005. Genetic differentiation in Oryza meridionalis Ng based on molecular and crossability analyses. Genetic Resources and Crop Evolution 52, 435-445. 

Lu, B.R., M.E. Naredo, A.B. Juliano & M.T. Jackson, 1998. Biosystematic studies of the AA genome Oryza species (Poaceae). Poster presented at the Second International Conference on the Comparative Biology of the Monocotyledons and Third International Symposium on Grass Systematics and Evolution, Sydney, Australia, September 27-October 2, 1998.

Lu, B.R., M.E.B. Naredo, A.B. Juliano & M.T. Jackson, 1997. Hybridization of AA genome rice species from Asia and Australia. II. Meiotic analysis of Oryza meridionalis and its hybrids. Genetic Resources and Crop Evolution 44, 25-31. 

Lu, B.R., M.E.B. Naredo, A.B. Juliano & M.T. Jackson, 1998. Taxonomic status of Oryza glumaepatula Steud. III. Assessment of genomic affinity among AA genome species from the New World, Asia, and Australia. Genetic Resources and Crop Evolution 45, 215-223. 

Lu, B.R., M.E.B. Naredo, A.B. Juliano & M.T. Jackson, 2000. Preliminary studies on the taxonomy and biosystematics of the AA genome Oryza species (Poaceae). In: S.W.L. Jacobs & J. Everett (eds.), Grasses: Systematics and Evolution. CSIRO: Melbourne, pp. 51-58. 

Naredo, M.E., A.B. Juliano, M.S. Almazan, B.R. Lu & M.T. Jackson, 2000. Morphological and molecular diversity of AA genome species of rice. Poster presented at the annual meeting of the Crop Science Society of America, Minneapolis, November 5-9, 2000.

Naredo, M.E.B., A.B. Juliano, B.R. Lu & M.T. Jackson, 1997. Hybridization of AA genome rice species from Asia and Australia. I. Crosses and development of hybrids. Genetic Resources and Crop Evolution 44, 17-23. 

Naredo, M.E.B., A.B. Juliano, B.R. Lu & M.T. Jackson, 1998. Taxonomic status of Oryza glumaepatula Steud. II. Hybridization between New World diploids and AA genome species from Asia and Australia. Genetic Resources and Crop Evolution 45, 205-214. 

Naredo, M.E.B., A.B. Juliano, B.R. Lu & M.T. Jackson, 2003. The taxonomic status of the wild rice species Oryza ridleyi Hook. f. and O. longiglumis Jansen (Ser. Ridleyanae Sharma et Shastry) from Southeast Asia. Genetic Resources and Crop Evolution. Genetic Resources and Crop Evolution 50, 477-488. 

Rao, S.A, M.T. Jackson, V Phetpaseuth & C. Bounphanousay, 1997. Spontaneous interspecific hybrids in Oryza in the Lao PDR. International Rice Research Notes 22, 4-5.

The diversity of rice
Appa Rao, S., C. Bounphanousay, J.M. Schiller & M.T. Jackson, 2002. Naming of traditional rice varieties by farmers in the Lao PDR. Genetic Resources and Crop Evolution 49, 83-88. 

Appa Rao, S., C. Bounphanousay, J.M. Schiller, M.T. Jackson, P. Inthapanya & K. Douangsila. 2006. The aromatic rice of Laos. In: J.M. Schiller, M.B. Chanphengxay, B. Linquist & S. Appa Rao (eds.), Rice in Laos. Los Baños (Philippines): International Rice Research Institute, pp. 159-174. 

Appa Rao, S., J.M. Schiller, C. Bounphanousay & M.T. Jackson. 2006. Diversity within the traditional rice varieties of Laos. In: J.M. Schiller, M.B. Chanphengxay, B. Linquist & S. Appa Rao (eds.), Rice in Laos. Los Baños (Philippines): International Rice Research Institute, pp. 123-140. 

Appa Rao, S., J.M. Schiller, C. Bounphanousay, A.P. Alcantara & M.T. Jackson. 2006. Naming of traditional rice varieties by the farmers of Laos. In: J.M. Schiller, M.B. Chanphengxay, B. Linquist & S. Appa Rao (eds.), Rice in Laos. Los Baños (Philippines): International Rice Research Institute, pp. 141-158. 

Appa Rao, S., J.M. Schiller, C. Bounphanousay, P. Inthapanya & M.T. Jackson. 2006. The colored pericarp (black) rice of Laos. In: J.M. Schiller, M.B. Chanphengxay, B. Linquist & S. Appa Rao (eds.), Rice in Laos. Los Baños (Philippines): International Rice Research Institute, pp. 175-186. 

Cabanilla, V.R., M.T. Jackson & T.R. Hargrove, 1993. Tracing the ancestry of rice varieties. Poster presented at the 17th International Congress of Genetics, Birmingham, U.K., August 15-21, 1993. Volume of abstracts, 112-113.

Cohen, M.B., M.T. Jackson, B.R. Lu, S.R. Morin, A.M. Mortimer, J.L. Pham & L.J. Wade, 1999. Predicting the environmental impact of transgene outcrossing to wild and weedy rices in Asia. In: 1999 PCPC Symposium Proceedings No. 72: Gene flow and agriculture: relevance for transgenic crops. Proceedings of a Symposium held at the University of Keele, Staffordshire, U.K., April 12-14, 1999. pp. 151-157.

Ford-Lloyd, B.V., D. Brar, G.S. Khush, M.T. Jackson & P.S. Virk, 2008. Genetic erosion over time of rice landrace agrobiodiversity. Plant Genetic Resources: Characterization and Utilization 7(2), 163-168. 

Ford-Lloyd, B.V., H.J. Newbury, M.T. Jackson & P.S. Virk, 2001. Genetic basis for co-adaptive gene complexes in rice (Oryza sativa L.) landraces. Heredity 87, 530-536. 

Jackson, M.T., 1998. The genetics of genetic conservation. Invited paper presented at the Fifth National Genetics Symposium, held at PhilRice, Nueva Ecija, Philippines, December 10-12, 1998.

Jackson, M.T., B.R. Lu, M.S. Almazan, M.E. Naredo & A.B. Juliano, 2000. The wild species of rice: conservation and value for rice improvement. Poster presented at the annual meeting of the Crop Science Society of America, Minneapolis, November 5-9, 2000.

Jackson, M.T., E.L. Javier & C.G. McLaren, 1999. Rice genetic resources for food security. Invited paper at the IRRI Symposium, held at the annual meeting of the Crop Science Society of America, Salt Lake City, October 31-November 4, 1999.

Jackson, M.T., E.L. Javier & C.G. McLaren, 2000. Rice genetic resources for food security: four decades of sharing and use. In: W.G. Padolina (ed.), Plant Variety Protection for Rice in Developing Countries. Limited proceedings of the workshop on the Impact of Sui Generis Approaches to Plant Variety Protection in Developing Countries. February 16-18, 2000, IRRI, Los Baños, Philippines. International Rice Research Institute, Makati City, Philippines. pp. 3-8.

Martin, C., A. Juliano, H.J. Newbury, B.R. Lu, M.T. Jackson & B.V. Ford-Lloyd, 1997. The use of RAPD markers to facilitate the identification of Oryza species within a germplasm collection. Genetic Resources and Crop Evolution 44, 175-183. 

Newbury, H.J., P. Virk, M.T. Jackson, G. Bryan, M. Gale & B.V. Ford-Lloyd, 1993. Molecular markers and the analysis of diversity in rice. Poster presented at the 17th International Congress of Genetics, Birmingham, U.K., August 15-21, 1993. Volume of abstracts, 121-122.

Parsons, B., H.J. Newbury, M.T. Jackson & B.V. Ford-Lloyd, 1999. The genetic structure and conservation of aus, aman and boro rices from Bangladesh. Genetic Resources and Crop Evolution 46, 587-598. 

Parsons, B.J., B.V. Ford-Lloyd, H.J. Newbury & M.T. Jackson, 1994. Use of PCR-based markers to assess genetic diversity in rice landraces from Bhutan and Bangladesh. Poster presented at the Annual Meeting of the British Ecological Society, held at The University of Birmingham, December 1994.

Parsons, B.J., H.J. Newbury, M.T. Jackson & B.V. Ford-Lloyd, 1997. Contrasting genetic diversity relationships are revealed in rice (Oryza sativa L.) using different marker types. Molecular Breeding 3, 115-125. 

Virk, P., B.V. Ford-Lloyd, M.T. Jackson & H.J. Newbury, 1994. The use of RAPD analysis for assessing diversity within rice germplasm. Paper presented at the Annual Meeting of the British Ecological Society, held at The University of Birmingham, December 1994.

Virk, P.S., B.V. Ford-Lloyd, M.T. Jackson & H.J. Newbury, 1995. Use of RAPD for the study of diversity within plant germplasm collections. Heredity 74, 170-179. 

Virk, P.S., B.V. Ford-Lloyd, M.T. Jackson, H.S. Pooni, T.P. Clemeno & H.J. Newbury, 1996. Marker-assisted prediction of agronomic traits using diverse rice germplasm. In: International Rice Research Institute, Rice Genetics III. Proceedings of the Third International Rice Genetics Symposium, Manila, Philippines, October 16-20, 1995, pp. 307-316.

Virk, P.S., B.V. Ford-Lloyd, M.T. Jackson, H.S. Pooni, T.P. Clemeno & H.J. Newbury, 1996. Predicting quantitative variation within rice using molecular markers. Heredity 76, 296-304. 

Virk, P.S., H.J. Newbury, M.T. Jackson & B.V. Ford-Lloyd, 1995. The identification of duplicate accessions within a rice germplasm collection using RAPD analysis. Theoretical and Applied Genetics 90, 1049-1055. 

Virk, P.S., H.J. Newbury, M.T. Jackson & B.V. Ford-Lloyd, 2000. Are mapped markers more useful for assessing genetic diversity? Theoretical and Applied Genetics 100, 607-613. 

Virk, P.S., H.J. Newbury, Y. Shen, M.T. Jackson & B.V. Ford-Lloyd, 1996. Prediction of agronomic traits in diverse germplasm of rice and beet using molecular markers. Paper presented at the Fourth International Plant Genome Conference, held in San Diego, California, January 14-18, 1996.

Virk, P.S., J. Zhu, H.J. Newbury, G.J. Bryan, M.T. Jackson & B.V. Ford-Lloyd, 2000. Effectiveness of different classes of molecular marker for classifying and revealing variation in rice (Oryza sativa) germplasm. Euphytica 112, 275-284. 

Zhu, J., M.D. Gale, S. Quarrie, M.T. Jackson & G.J. Bryan, 1998. AFLP markers for the study of rice biodiversity. Theoretical and Applied Genetics 96, 602-611. 

Zhu, J.H., P. Stephenson, D.A. Laurie, W. Li, D. Tang, M.T. Jackson & M.D. Gale, 1999. Towards rice genome scanning by map-based AFLP fingerprinting. Molecular and General Genetics 261, 184-295. 

 

 

Are you plant blind?

In our 1986 book Plant Genetic Resources: An Introduction to their Conservation and Use, my former colleague and friend of almost 50 years, Professor Brian Ford-Lloyd and I wrote (on page 1):

To most people the word ‘conservation’ conjures up visions of lovable cuddly animals like giant pandas on the verge of extinction. Or it refers to the prevention of the mass slaughter of endangered whale species, under threat because of human’s greed and short-sightedness. Comparatively few  however, are moved to action or financial contribution by the idea of economically important plant genes disappearing from the face of the earth. . . . But plant genetic resources make little impression on the heart even though their disappearance could herald famine on a greater scale than ever seen before, leading to ultimate world-wide disaster.

Hyperbole? Perhaps. Through our 1986 lens that did not seem far-fetched. And while it’s fair to say that the situation today is better in some respects than Brian and I predicted, there are new threats and challenges, such as global warming.

The world needs genetic diversity to breed varieties of crops that will keep agricultural systems sustainable, allow production of crops in drought-prone regions, where temperatures are increasing, and where new races of diseases threaten even the very existence of agriculture for some crops.

That genetic diversity comes from the hundreds of thousands of crop varieties that farmers have nurtured for generations since the birth of agriculture millennia ago, or in closely related wild species. After all, all crops were once wild species before domestication.

These are the genetic resources that must be safely guarded for future generations.

The work of the International Board for Plant Genetic Resources (IBPGR), then the International Plant Genetic Resources Institute (IPGRI), was pivotal in coordinating and supporting genetic resources programs worldwide, in the 1970s, 80s and 90s.

Then a new and very important player came along. Over the past decade and half the Crop Trust, has provided long-term support to some of the world’s most important genebanks.

International mechanisms have been put in place to support collection, conservation, study, and use of plant genetic resources. Yet, much remains to be done. And ‘Joe Public’ is probably still as unaware of the importance of the crop varieties and their wild relatives (and perhaps plants in general) as we feared more than three decades ago.


Wildlife programs on TV are mostly about animals, apart from the weekly gardening programs, and some such as David Attenborough’s The Private Life of Plants (broadcast in 1995). Animal programs attract attention for precisely the reasons that Brian and I highlighted in 1986. A couple of nights ago for instance I watched a fascinating, hour-long program on the BBC about hippos in the Okavango Delta of Botswana. Wonderful footage revealing never-before-seen hippo behaviour and ecology.

When it comes to genetic resources, animals don’t do so badly either, at least here in the UK. We get an almost weekly item about the importance of rare breeds of livestock and their imperiled status during the BBC’s flagship Countryfile program on Sunday evenings presented by farmer Adam Henson, whose father Joe helped set up the Rare Breeds Survival Trust (RBST) in 1973. The RBST has been pivotal in rescuing many breeds from the brink of extinction. Just last night (28 July) Adam proudly showed an Albion calf born the day before on his farm in the Cotswolds. The Albion breed is one of the rarest in the UK.

Photo credit: the RBST

But that says very little about all the endangered livestock breeds around the world that are fortunately the focus of the work of the International Livestock Research Institute (ILRI).

Ankole cattle from southwestern Uganda (photo credit: ILRI/Stevie Mann).

However . . .

When was the last time—if ever—you watched a TV documentary about the rare (so-called ‘heritage’) varieties of the food plants on which we depend, or their closest wild species relatives, such as the barleys of Ethiopia or the potatoes of the South American Andes, for instance. And would you really care if you hadn’t?

Are you even aware that the barleys that we use for brewing originally came from Ethiopia and the Middle East? Or that the Spanish brought the potato back to Europe in the 16th century from Peru? What about your daily cups of tea or coffee?

These are just some of the myriad of fascinating histories of our food crops. Today many of these staples are often more important in agriculture in parts of the world far distant from the regions where they originated and were first domesticated.

In the UK, enthusiasts will be aware of heritage vegetable varieties, and the many varieties of fruits like apples that have disappeared from commercial orchards, but are still grown at places like Berrington Hall in Herefordshire.

Take a look at this article by freelance communicator Jeremy Cherfas about the origins of the food we eat. Jeremy has written a lot about genetic resources (and many other aspects of sustainable agriculture). As he says, you may discover a few surprises.

In centers of domestication, the diversity of the crops grown by farmers is impressive indeed. It’s wonderful. It’s BEAUTIFUL! The domestication of crops and their use by farmers worldwide is the story of civilization.

Here are just a few examples from beans, maize, cocoa, cucurbits, wheat, and lentil.

And take a look at the video below.

Who could fail to be impressed by such a range of shapes and colors of these varieties? And these varieties (and wild species) contain all the genes we need to keep crops productive.

Plant genetic resources: food for the stomach, food for the soul.


My own work since 1971 concerned the conservation and use of potatoes and rice (and some legume species as side projects).

In Peru, I came to learn just how important potatoes are for communities that live at altitude in the Andes. Could the Inca empire have grown and dominated the region had there been no potatoes (and maize)?

Machu Picchu

And there are so many wild species of potatoes that can be found from the southern USA to the south of Chile and east into the plains of Brazil. The International Potato Center (CIP) in Lima (where I worked for over eight years) has the world’s largest genebank of potato varieties. Important wild species collections are maintained there, as well as in Scotland at the Commonwealth Potato Collection (maintained by the James Hutton Institute), and the USA, at the NRSP-6 Potato Genebank in Sturgeon Bay, WI.

Rice is the food of Asia. There are thousands upon thousands of varieties that grow in standing water, or on sloping uplands, or in areas that flood and so have evolved to elongate rapidly to keep pace with rising flood waters.

Here is a selection of images of rice diversity in Laos, one of the countries that we explored during the 1990s.

Would it have been possible to build the temple complex at Angkor Wat in Cambodia in the 12th century without rice? It has been estimated that upwards of one million workers were employed in its construction. That workforce needed a constant supply of staple rice, the only crop that could be grown productively in this monsoon environment.

These potato and rice examples are the tip of the genetic resources and civilization history iceberg. Think about the origins of agriculture in Turkey and the Mideast, 10,000 years ago. Remains of wheat, barley and pulses like lentil and chickpea have been found at the earliest cities in that region. And these histories are repeated all around the world.


In 1983 and 1984, BBC2 aired two series of a program called Geoffrey Smith’s World of Flowers, in which Smith (a professional gardener and broadcaster) waxed lyrical on the history of many of his favorite garden plants, and their development in cultivation: tulips from Turkey, dahlias from Mexico, lilies from North America, and many, many more.

In these programs, he talked about where and how the plants grow in the wild, when they had been collected, and by whom, and how through decades (centuries in some cases) of hybridization and selection, there are so many varieties in our gardens today. The programs attracted an audience of over 5 million apparently. And two books were also published.

I had an idea. If programs like these could be so popular, how about a series on the food plants that we eat, where they originated, how they were domesticated, and how modern varieties have been bred using these old varieties and wild species. I envisaged these programs encompassing archaeology and crop science, the rise of civilizations, completing the stories of why and which crops we depend on.

I wrote a synopsis for the programs and sent it to the producer at the BBC of the Geoffrey Smith programs, Brian Davies. I didn’t hear back for several weeks, but out of the blue, he wrote back and asking to come up to Birmingham for a further discussion. I pitched the idea to him. I had lots of photos of crop diversity and wild species, stories about the pioneers of plant genetic resources, like Vavilov, Jack Harlan, Erna Bennett, and Jack Hawkes, to name just a few. I explained how these plant stories were also stories about the development and growth of civilizations, and how this had depended on plant domestication. Stories could be told from some of the most important archaeological sites around the world.

Well, despite my enthusiasm, and the producer warming to the idea, he eventually wrote back that the BBC could not embark on such a series due to financial limitations. And that’s all I heard. Nevertheless, I still think that a series along these lines would make fascinating television. Now who would present the series (apart from myself, that is!)?

Maybe its time has come around again. From time-to-time, interesting stories appear in the media about crops and their origins, as this recent one about cocoa and vanilla in the Smithsonian Magazine illustrates.

But we need to do more to spread the plant genetic resources ‘gospel’. The stories are not only interesting, but essential for our agricultural survival.


 

Everyone’s a taxonomist

I’ve just discovered (via Twitter) that 19 March was Taxonomist Appreciation Day. This was, as far as I can make out, a celebration of the important—fundamental even—contribution that biologists known as taxonomists make to our understanding of the living world. Taxonomists bring order to the biodiversity that’s all around us. Indeed, without this order and understanding, it would be more difficult to know for example which plants and animals are endangered, and to prioritize what to conserve, and where.

The most celebrated taxonomist of all was surely the eighteenth century Swedish botanist Carl von Linné (whose Latinized name, Linnaeus, identifies him as the taxonomic authority, L., for many plants and animals).

So what do taxonomists do? One of their important roles is to describe and catalogue all plants and animals and, in the case of plants, publish this information in compendia known as Floras as an aid to identification, like those written about the plants of the British Isles and Europe that have been studied for hundreds of years.

Other Floras are still being written. Take the Flora Zambesiaca, for example, a project started in 1960 as the taxonomic study of native and naturalised plants of the Zambezi River basin, covering the territories of Botswana, Malawi, Mozambique, Zambia, Zimbabwe and the Caprivi Strip. This is a work in progress, and there are many other parts of the world where the diversity of plants is only now being discovered and documented, particularly in the Tropics.

But taxonomists also look at the variation within species, and assess the dynamics of species distribution and evolution.


Mr Les Watson

I had my first taste of taxonomy at the University of Southampton where, as first year students or freshmen in 1967/68, we studied the diversity of flowering plants under the tuition of taxonomist Les Watson. He and another colleague Alan Myers took us to the west coast of Ireland for a field course in July 1968 where we studied the vegetation of the Burren in Co Clare.

Professor Vernon Heywood

In my final or senior year in 1970, I sat in on a plant taxonomy course given by eminent taxonomist Professor Vernon Heywood from the University of Reading (Les Watson had moved to Australia in 1968/69, and had not been replaced in the Department of Botany). I met up with Professor Heywood in 1991 at a conference in Rome where we had an opportunity to reminisce about that course.

I never expected that, one day, I would engage in taxonomic research. However, I never participated in describing or naming plant species, nor undertaking the enormous task of contributing to Floras that is sometimes considered the be-all and end-all of taxonomists’ work. I take my hat off to those taxonomists who write Floras, often relying on dried herbarium specimens of plants collected in nature. Nevertheless, in my own work, I have used herbaria on occasion, and twice spent time looking at specimens of lentil (Lens culinaris Medik.) and grasspea (Lathyrus sativus L.) among the millions of herbarium sheets curated in the Herbarium at the Royal Botanic Gardens at Kew. My interest was in the relationships of these cultivated plants and their wild relatives.

Comparing notes in the field in the Andes of central Peru with potato taxonomist Professor Jack Hawkes (who supervised my PhD dissertation).

In 1973 I joined the International Potato Center in Peru as an Associate Taxonomist, studying the evolution of cultivated potatoes. Biosystematics, a sub-discipline of plant taxonomy, was my field, and I investigated species relationships through field experiments to understand patterns of morphological variation, through breeding experiments, and cytogenetic analysis of chromosome pairing in hybrids, among other several different approaches.

When I returned to Birmingham in 1981 as Lecturer in Plant Biology, I continued research on wild potatoes, and also several legume species. I also contributed about half the lectures to a second year module on flowering plant taxonomy.

On moving to the International Rice Research Institute (IRRI) in the Philippines in July 1991, my colleagues and I delved into the taxonomy and species relationships of the two cultivated species of rice, Oryza sativa L. and O. glaberrima Steud., and the 20 or so wild species in the genus Oryza. We published quite extensively, and you you can peruse a list of rice publications (many with PDF files) here.


Just last week I met up for lunch with six retired former colleagues from the School of Biological Sciences at the University of Birmingham: three plant scientists (including me), three geneticists, and a zoologist. Inevitably we began to discuss not only the administrative and organization changes that had occurred at the university (I taught there between 1981 and 1991), but how the teaching of biology had also changed, and the topics that now form a core biology curriculum.

Back in the day, whole organism biology still formed an important component of an undergraduate degree in biological sciences at Birmingham. Nowadays, and for obvious reasons, there’s much more focus on molecular biology, and recent hirings in what is now the School of Biosciences (Biological Sciences and Biochemistry merged some years back) reflect that change of emphasis.

Alas, it’s no longer possible to study at Birmingham for a biology degree with a plant sciences focus. But that’s not just a Birmingham issue; it’s nationwide. And taxonomy is perhaps the discipline that has suffered more than most. Taxonomists are just not coming through the system. Just at the time when one can argue there should be more demand for taxonomists than ever before, given the environmental changes that threaten the world’s vegetation. In some regions we may be losing species even before they have been identified. Harvard biologist EO Wilson wrote this in 2017: Our incomplete taxonomic knowledge impedes our attempts to protect biodiversity. A renaissance in the classification of species and their interactions is needed to guide conservation prioritization [1].


Now, I started this piece stating that everyone is a taxonomist. Is that a fair assumption?I think so.

Appa Rao collecting upland rice varieties from a farmer in the Lao PDR.

Taxonomy (and classification) is a fundamental human characteristic, something we do every day. We sort the complex world around us into meaningful categories, and we give them names. In many societies, farmers and their husbands use so-called ‘folk taxonomies’ to manage the various crops grown, and often the diversity of different varieties within a crop. I have myself talked to potato farmers in the Andes of southern Peru about their cultivation of different varieties, and why these are grown in different ways. In the Lao PDR, with my colleague Dr Appa Rao, we looked at how farmers name all their rice varieties.

Even before talking to my second year students about flowering plant taxonomy as such (and the different approaches used to study variation), I asked them to practice some simple taxonomies on themselves: males vs. females, blondes vs. brunettes, spectacle users vs. non-users, for example. These are discrete characteristics, binary, one or the other. Then we’d look at the complexity of coping with characters that vary quantitatively, such as height, length, etc.

Fortunately, there are many numerical techniques that allow us to cope with all sorts of measurements, and reduce complexity to a state that can be interpreted more easily.

The classification of different rice species based on the measurement and analysis of a range of morphological characters.

The use of different molecular markers now allows us to refine taxonomies built using morphological data. But, as I once read in a letter published in a scientific journal, a professor of taxonomy decried the lack of basic species knowledge among many students using molecular approaches. They could wax lyrical, he stated, about the value of different molecular techniques, but they had hardly looked at a living plant. That brings me back to my concern about the reduction in teaching whole organism biology.

As I say, we are all taxonomists, one way or another. Unfortunately I don’t see any scientific expansion (in the UK at least) in this particular discipline.

The situation may be different in North America. Plant sciences are still very strong in many US universities, and indeed there is a bill before Congress that promotes botanical research & sciences capacity, generates demand for native plant materials, & authorizes related federal activities.


[1] Wilson, EO (2017). Biodiversity research requires more boots on the ground. Nature Ecology & Evolution 1, 1590 –1591