A botanical field trip to the south of Peru . . . 45 years ago

In 1976, a paper appeared in the scientific journal Flora, authored by University of St Andrews botanist Peter Gibbs¹ (now retired), on the breeding system of a tuber crop, oca (Oxalis tuberosa), that is grown by farmers throughout the Andes of Peru and Bolivia.

Like a number of Oxalis species, oca has a particular floral morphology known as heterostyly that promotes outcrossing between different plants. In his 1877 The Different Forms of Flowers on Plants of the Same Species, Charles Darwin had illustrated (in Fig. 11) the particular situation of tristyly in ‘Oxalis speciosa‘, the same floral morphology that is found in oca. In this illustration taken from Darwin’s publication, the ‘legitimate’ pollinations are shown; stigmas can only receive pollen from stamens at the same level in another flower.

Anyway, to cut a long story short, Peter had visited Peru in early 1974 (hard to believe that it’s 45 years ago), made collections of oca from a number of localities, particularly one village, Cuyo Cuyo, in the Department of Puno in the south of Peru (just north of Lake Titicaca), and then studied the breeding system of the oca varieties that he’d collected. His 1976 paper in Flora emanated from that field trip.


But there’s more to that story (and publication) than meets the eye. It was also tied up with the research I was carrying out on potatoes in the Peruvian Andes at that time. Peter and I made that field trip together, spending at least three weeks on the road, before flying back to Lima from Cuzco.

I don’t recall precisely when I first met Peter. We were obviously in touch when planning the trip south, but I simply can’t remember whether, during 1973, Peter had passed through Lima where I was working at the International Potato Center (CIP) in La Molina since January that year, or he had contacted CIP’s Director General Richard Sawyer asking if the center could provide logistical support and the DG had passed that request on to me. Whatever the course of events, Peter and I came to an agreement to make a field trip together to the south of Peru.

This is the route of more than 2000 km that we took.

While working as an Associate Taxonomist at CIP I was also registered for a PhD in potato biosystematics (under potato expert Professor Jack Hawkes at The University of Birmingham) which I was expected to complete by 1975. My work, studying the breeding relationships of potato varieties with different chromosome numbers was similar, in some respects, to that Peter envisaged with oca.

I’d been looking for suitable field locations where it might be possible to study the dynamics of potato cultivation in an ‘unspoiled’ area where mostly traditional potato varieties were cultivated rather than varieties bred and released on the market in recent years. At the back end of 1973 I made a short visit to Puno on the shore of Lake Titicaca to explore several possible field sites. Then, Peter proposed we visit the remote village of Cuyo Cuyo, around 250 km north of Puno. He’d come across a paper (either one by AW Hill in 1939 or another by WH Hodge in 1951 – both are cited by Peter in his Flora paper) that described widespread oca cultivation at Cuyo Cuyo on a series of ancient terraces, but also of potato varieties. I wasn’t sure if this was the location I was looking for, but agreed that we could explore Cuyo Cuyo first before heading north towards Cuzco in search of other likely sites.


Our journey south to Puno took at least three days if memory serves me correctly. Our trusty chariot was a short wheelbase Land Rover, with a canvas hood.

Not the most secure vehicle if you have to park up overnight in an unprotected lot. Nor the most comfortable; very sturdy suspension. But an excellent vehicle otherwise for ‘driving’ out of tricky situations.

We headed south on the Panamericana Sur, stopping at Ica or Nazca on the first night south of Lima, then on the Arequipa on the second day.

The Panamericana hugs the coast through the southern desert, crossing river valleys that flow down from the Andes to meet the Pacific Ocean. Along these, and in the area of Camana (where the road heads inland to Arequipa) quite a lot of rice is grown.

From Arequipa it must have taken another day to travel to Puno across the altiplano.

We then had another night to recoup in Puno, enjoying a comfortable bed, some good food, and perhaps one too many algarrobina cocktails (made from pisco) that Peter had taken a shine to.

Along the shore of Lake Titicaca near Puno


It took a day to travel to Cuyo Cuyo, across the altiplano (>4000 masl), fording rivers, and then, as we approached the village from the south, dropping into a steep-sided valley, the Sandia Gorge.

We hit a cloud layer, obscuring views of the valley, but also coming across a landslide that had to be cleared before we could make progress.

Once past that barrier, the cloud cleared and we began to see something of the majesty of the Cuyo Cuyo valley, with the steep valley sides covered in ancient terraces that, as we discovered over the next few days, were still be farmed communally as they had been for generations apparently. On the descent into Cuyo Cuyo, the banks alongside the road were also covered in masses of a beautiful begonia (Begonia clarkei Hook.) with large white flowers about 3-4 inches in diameter.


Where to stay? There was no hotel or pensión in Cuyo Cuyo. We did however have some camping gear with us such as camp beds, sleeping bags and the like. Plus all our other equipment for collecting (and drying) herbarium samples, and flowers and flower buds for pollen and chromosome studies.

After some enquiries we met Sr Justo Salas Rubín (who was, if I remember correctly, the local postmaster – seen with Peter below) who gave us space in one of the rooms of his home (the ‘post office’?) to set up ‘camp’. We also soon became quite a curiosity for the local children (and some animal friends as well).

I was not disappointed that we chose Cuyo Cuyo first. It was an extraordinary location where we could interact with potato and oca farmers who grew a wide range of varieties, and who were open to collaborate with us. Since that visit in 1974 several other botanists (and anthropologists) have made field studies at Cuyo Cuyo on the agricultural terraces that I described here.

While Peter set about collecting samples in the many oca fields (mainly beside the river on the valley floor), I set off up the terraces to study a couple of fields for their varietal composition, the ploidy (or chromosome number) of these varieties, and the factors that led farmers to accept or reject varieties. I was interested to see how triploid varieties (sterile forms with 36 chromosomes that can only be formed following hybridization between varieties with 48 and 24 chromosomes) could enter farmer systems, and at what frequency.

I also looked at the methods used to cultivate potatoes, and the tools used.²

On the left is a foot plough, about 4 feet in length, known in Cuyo Cuyo as a ‘huire’ (most often ‘chaqui taccla’ in other parts of Peru). Its component parts are: A. ‘calzada’ that rests on the shoulder; B. ‘huiso’ or hand grip; C. ‘lazo’ or leather binding fastening the parts together; D. ‘taquillpo’ or foot rest; and E. the ‘reja’ or blade. On the right is a hand tool used for harvesting potatoes (and presumably oca as well) called the ‘lawccana’, as well as other cultivations during the growing season. Its component parts are: A. the ‘ccalo’ or handle; B. the ‘lazo’, a leather thong holding the blade C. or ‘chonta’ on to the handle.

My paper on potatoes at Cuyo Cuyo was finally published in 1980 in the journal Euphytica. And that’s a tale in itself.³

Peter was keen to make herbarium sheets of many of the varieties he’d collected. We set up a dryer in the house where we were staying. But there was a problem. Most of the samples were pretty wet to begin with, as we experienced intermittent rain during our stay in Cuyo Cuyo. Oca stems are very fleshy, and despite our best efforts, they just didn’t dry out. Even when we got them back to Lima, and Peter prepared them for shipping back to St Andrews, many of the samples were still showing signs of life.

Indeed, after he returned to Scotland, Peter was able to take cuttings from his herbarium samples and grow plants to maturity in the glasshouse, thus continuing his studies there.


After three or four days in Cuyo Cuyo, we retraced our steps to Puno, then headed north towards Cuzco and further study sites near Chinchero.

At these, I was particularly interested in taking flower bud samples from different potato fields. In the area we chose, farmers grew a combination of bred varieties for sale in the local markets of Cuzco and, around their homes, native varieties for home consumption. In this photo, large plantings of commercial varieties stretch into the distance. Around the homes in the foreground, in walled gardens, farmers grew their native varieties.

As I was busy looking at different varieties, these two women came by, and one sat down to breastfeed her baby. They are wearing the traditional dress of that region of Cuzco.

On another day we set out to study potato (and oca) fields a little more remote, so had to hire horses to reach our destination.

Field work complete, Peter and I spent a couple of days resting up in Cuzco before flying back to Lima. We left the Land Rover there for one of my colleagues Zósimo Huamán to pick up, as he planned to undertake some fieldwork as well before driving back to Lima.

During the couple of days in Cuzco we paid a call on Prof. César Vargas, a renowned Peruvian botanist (and close friend of my PhD supervisor Jack Hawkes), who I’d met once before in January 1973 not long after I arrived in Peru. Prof Vargas’s daughter Martha studied for her MSc degree in botany at the University of St Andrews.

L to R: my wife Steph, Peter, and Martha Vargas

All in all, we had a successful field trip to the south of Peru. It’s hard to believe it all took place 45 years ago next month. But it remains, in my mind’s eye, quite a significant trip from the years I spent in Peru.


¹ Peter graduated in botany from the University of Liverpool, and completed his PhD in 1964 there under the supervision of Professor Vernon Heywood, who moved to the University of Reading to become head of that university’s Department of Botany a couple of years later. Peter and I had a lot to talk about, because in 1969-70, when I was an undergraduate at the University of Southampton, Vernon Heywood gave a series of 20 lectures on flowering plant taxonomy over 10 weeks to Southampton botanists, because Leslie Watson, Southampton’s taxonomy lecturer had moved to Australia. Vernon and I renewed our acquaintance some years later, in 1991, when he and I attended a genetic resources meeting at the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) in Rome just before I moved to the Philippines to join the International Rice Research Institute (IRRI).

² One interesting piece of information that didn’t make it into my thesis but which I remember clearly was the incidence of geophagy among some residents of Cuyo Cuyo. I was taken to a location where farmers would excavate small quantities of a hard clay, that would be ground to a powder and mixed with water to form a slurry or soft paste. They would then dip recently harvested boiled potatoes in the clay as this, apparently, would decrease the slightly ‘spicy’ flavor of some of the varieties. I’m not sure how widespread this behavior was, but it’s something that has stuck in my mind all these years. I think I once had photos but they are long lost, more’s the pity.

³ I completed my PhD in December 1975, and shortly afterwards moved to Costa Rica to continue working for CIP, in potato breeding and agronomy. I started to prepare three manuscripts from my thesis for publication in Euphytica. The first, on varietal diversity, was submitted in February 1977, and published later the same year. The second, on breeding relationships, was published in 1978, having been submitted in July 1977. The third, on the ethnobotany of potato cultivation in Cuyo Cuyo finally appeared in print in 1980, having been submitted to Euphytica in February 1979.

But Euphytica had not been the first choice for this third paper. I actually produced a manuscript for the journal Economic Botany, and it included more details of the cropping systems and varietal choices made by farmers. My paper was received by the journal and acknowledged, but then I heard nothing more, for months and months. Eventually I wrote to the editor asking about the status of my manuscript. And I received a very strange reply.

It seemed that the editor-in-chief had retired, and his replacement had found, on file, manuscripts that had been submitted up to 20 years earlier, but had never been published! I was asked how I wanted to proceed with my manuscript as there was no guarantee it would appear in print any time soon. But about the same time, I received a nice letter from the then editor of Euphytica, Dr AC Zeven, complimenting me on my PhD thesis (which he had read in the library at Wageningen University in the Netherlands) and encouraging me to publish my work on the ethnobotany of potatoes – if I hadn’t already done so. I withdrew my manuscript from Economic Botany, and after some reformatting to fit the Euphytica style, sent it to Dr Zeven. He requested some deletions of the more descriptive sections on ethnobotany, and published my paper in 1980.


One last thing: I also remember was the novel that Peter was reading throughout the trip. Watership Down by Richard Adams, first published in 1972, that went on to become a literary sensation. I did read it myself at some point, but whether I borrowed Peter’s copy immediately after the trip, or some time later, I don’t recall. I know I didn’t think it would become the phenomenon that it did. What do I know?


 

Killing me softly . . . memories maketh the man!

Memories. Powerful; fleeting; joyful; or sad. Sometimes, unfortunately, too painful and hidden away in the deepest recesses of the mind, only to be dragged to the surface with great reluctance.

Some memories float to the surface at the slightest instigation. Often all it takes is a glimpse of a treasured landscape, a word spoken by a friend, a few bars of music, or a particular song. Some memories need more persuasion.

And then, one is transported back days, months, years, even decades. Memories can be vague; they can be crystal clear, even while the precise context may be fuzzy round the edges – where, when, or why. They are part and parcel of who each and every one of us is as a person. Without memories, we are nobody.

I have one particular – and very strong – memory whenever Roberta starts to kill me softly . . . Yes, one song. Just a few bars, and I’m taken back 46 years to late January 1973. Lima, Peru.

So why this particular song?

I’d arrived in Lima at the beginning of the month to start my assignment as Associate Taxonomist at the International Potato Center (CIP) in La Molina on the eastern outskirts of the city (now totally subsumed into Lima’s urban sprawl).

After spending a couple of weeks holed up in the Pensión Beech (a guest house in the San Isidro district of Lima), I signed a contract for my own apartment on the 11th or 12th floor of an apartment building (still standing today) at Pasaje Los Pinos in the heart of the Miraflores District. In 1973, there was just a dirt parking lot in front of the apartment building, and the Todos Supermarket (no longer there) was to one side. Now the apartment building is surrounded by high-rise on all sides. It’s a wonder that it has survived about 50 years of earthquakes, including several rather large ones. It never did seem that sturdy to me, but there again, what do I know about engineering?

The arrow indicates the approximate location of my apartment. In January 1973 this building stood in a wide open space – no longer the case.

I moved in, just after my small consignment of airfreight (including a stereo system) had arrived a few days earlier. I had music!

Steph joined me in Lima at the beginning of July 1973, and we stayed in the same apartment for about six weeks more before moving to a larger one elsewhere in Miraflores. My stereo is prominently displayed on the left!

And on the radio station that I tuned into, Radio Panamericana, Killing Me Softly With His Song was played, almost non-stop it seemed, from its release on 21 January 1973 for the next couple of months. It became an instant worldwide success for Roberta Flack. But she wasn’t the first to record it.

KMSWHS was penned by American lyricist Norman Gimbel (who passed away in December 2018), with music by his long-time collaborator Charles Fox. However, there is some dispute over the song’s origins. KMSWHS was originally recorded by American singer Lori Lieberman in 1971.

Whatever the situation, KMSWHS remains a great favorite of mine. Whenever I hear it, I’m 24 years old again, starting out on a career in international agricultural research for development. The world was my oyster!

As I wrote a few years back, I would include KMSWHS on my list of eights discs to take to a desert island. That perspective has not changed.

I’m a 19th century sort of person . . . and a Kindle convert

I started to draft this post several weeks ago, with the intention of completing it between Christmas and the New Year. I was all set to put the finishing touches after Steph and I returned from our short Christmas break with family in the northeast. It was meant to be my last post of 2018. Instead, it’s my first of 2019.

I was laid low by a nasty respiratory viral infection, and that was that. Ten days later and I’m still not fully recovered, but at least I can face sitting at the keyboard and tapping out the few last thoughts of a post I’d expected to complete before now.

I spent much of 2017 working my way through all the novels of Charles Dickens, taking a mid-year break from those to pursue my other literary interest: history, and in recent years, history of the American Civil War. And also towards the end of the year after completing the ‘Dickens literary marathon’. In the process, I have become a convert to the Amazon Kindle.

A couple of years back, my elder daughter Hannah recycled an old Kindle to Steph, but she never really got to grips with it. Once I found there was a wealth of titles available, many free or at a very low cost, I decided to invest some time in this new-fangled gadget. Some of the books I fancied reading were not available in our local library, and we no longer have the shelf space to accumulate more books. I haven’t disposed of any of the many history books I bought over the years we lived in the Philippines. And, each year that we visit Hannah in Minnesota, I have added to that collection with regular visits to Half Price Books in the Highland Park area of St Paul.

But after fifteen Dickens novels, and five Civil War histories, I decided to take a short literary break at the beginning of this year, before starting a rather gruesome—but fascinating—book that my younger daughter Philippa and husband Andi had given me for Christmas.

Written by Lindsey Fitzharris, a medical historian with a doctorate from the University of Oxford, The Butchering Art is an account of how 19th century medicine, and particularly surgery, was transformed by Joseph Lister, a Quaker surgeon.

With that under my belt, so to speak, I looked round for my next literary challenge. I attempted to re-read Emma by Jane Austen, but soon grew dissatisfied with the main character. An attempt to re-read the first of Anthony Trollope’s Palliser novels, Can You Forgive Her (1864) also ended in failure. I’d first read these in the late 1970s when we lived in Costa Rica.

Then, in April, BBC TV screened a five-part adaptation of Wilkie Collins’s 1859 novel, The Woman in White, set in Cumberland. Having enjoyed the dramatization, I wondered how true it had been to the original. Of course I knew of the novel, but until then, had never considered reading it. And it was through A Woman in White that I decided that 2018 should be a year when I explored novels that are often considered among the finest of 19th century literature. And a couple of others.

So, I searched out novels by the three Brontë sisters, F Scott Fitzgerald, Harper Lee, Alexandre Dumas, and Leo Tolstoy, as well as enjoying three more American Civil War tomes mid-year.

Wuthering Heights, a text that’s almost compulsory reading on high school curricula (but was not on mine). So in my 70th year, I finally got round to investing time with Emily and her sisters Anne and Charlotte. A couple of years ago, in December 2016, the BBC screened an excellent 2-hour drama, To Walk Invisible, about the lives of the Brontë sisters. What that drama emphasized—and what one clearly sees in their writing—was just what extraordinary authors they all were. Sitting around their parlour table in the Haworth rectory, their words conjure up a world way beyond the close confines of their Yorkshire upbringing. Remarkable!

What a joy Wuthering Heights was to read. Heathcliff and Catherine!

Anne’s The Tenant of Wildfell Hall was completely unknown to me, and like Wuthering Heights is a tale of love among the moors. And of mistaken identity and all its consequences.

Villette is regarded as one of Charlotte’s finest novels, and although it has its merits, the fact that large sections are written in French don’t make it particularly accessible. I have basic French so could more or less follow along. But it was a struggle. It’s based on Charlotte’s experiences in Belgium.

Jane Eyre is much more familiar. How many times has the BBC adapted it for the small screen? We’re currently watching the 2006 version starring Ruth Wilson in the lead role. And there have been large screen adaptations as well. The novel is so much better than any of the screen versions I have seen.

In between Wuthering Heights and The Tenant of Wildfell Hall, I decided to search out two masterpieces of 20th century American fiction: The Great Gatsby (1925) by F Scott Fitzgerald (and St Paul native), and Harper Lee’s To Kill A Mockingbird (1960). I knew Gatsby from the 1974 film version (script by Francis Ford Coppola) starring Robert Redford and Mia Farrow. What surprised me was how short the novel was, almost a short story.

Now that I’ve read To Kill A Mockingbird, I’m still not sure why it’s regarded as such an outstanding novel. I’d only ever watched one or two scenes from the 1962 dramatization starring Gregory Peck, and had expected much of the novel to focus on the trial. Not so. It’s full of observations of small town life in Alabama during the 1930s, seen through the eyes of six year old ‘Scout’ Finch, daughter of town lawyer Atticus Finch who takes on the defence of a young African American accused of raping a white woman.

Considered a classic of American literature, and a Pultizer Prize winner, there’s no doubt that Mockingbird is a significant novel. But I’m still not certain just how significant it is.

The three novels by Alexandre Dumas that I tackled were just a romp, as it were. On reflection, I think that I enjoyed The Count of Monte Cristo most. The Man in the Iron Mask was not what I expected at all; it’s the third part of a much larger novel, but often distributed on its own.

Mid-year I purchased three more American Civil War biographies, and since our summer road trip took us through Ohio, the Buckeye State, these biographies (1656 pages in total) of murderous guerilla leader William Clarke Quantrill, and Union generals William Tecumseh Sherman and Ulysses S Grant (all hailing from Ohio) were most illuminating.

And as 2018 drew to a close, I was less than one third of the way through Leo Tolstoy’s magnum opus War and Peace, published in 1869.

Even now, I’ve only just reached 40%, and I reckon it will take me a few more weeks yet. I hadn’t really expected to appreciate it very much. I was taken with the 2016 adaptation of the novel on the BBC, and look forward to seeing that again, once I have finished the novel. But War and Peace is a delight, much to my surprise.

Written by British author Bill Laws, I look forward to dipping into Fifty Plants that Changed the Course of History (2010). This book was another Christmas present from Philippa and Andi. Laws apparently has a book on the potato coming out in 2019.

Having taken a peek at the chapters on potato and rice, I’m not entirely convinced of the focus he took with both of these crops – of which I know quite a bit myself. Anyway, time will tell, once I have delved into the various topics in more detail.

But that won’t be for a week or two yet. I still have to settle the demise of Napoleon Bonaparte, courtesy of Leo Tolstoy.

Discovering Vavilov, and building a career in plant genetic resources: (3) Becoming a genebanker in the 1990s, and beyond

My decision to leave a tenured position at the University of Birmingham in June 1991 was not made lightly. I was about to be promoted to Senior Lecturer, and I’d found my ‘home’ in the Plant Genetics Research Group following the reorganization of the School of Biological Sciences a couple of years earlier.

But I wasn’t particularly happy. Towards the end of the 1980s, Margaret Thatcher’s Conservative Government had become hostile to the university sector, demanding significant changes in the way they operated before acceding to any improvements in pay and conditions. Some of the changes then forced on the university system still bedevil it to this day.

I felt as though I was treading water, trying to keep my head above the surface. I had a significant teaching load, research was ticking along, PhD and MSc students were moving through the system, but still the university demanded more. So when an announcement of a new position as Head of the Genetic Resources Center (GRC) at the International Rice Research Institute (IRRI) in the Philippines landed on my desk in September 1990, it certainly caught my interest. I discussed such a potential momentous change with Steph, and with a couple of colleagues at the university.

Nothing venture, nothing gained, I formally submitted an application to IRRI and, as they say, the rest is history. However, I never expected to spend the next 19 years in the Philippines.


Since 1971, I’d worked almost full time in various aspects of conservation and use of plant genetic resources. I’d collected potato germplasm in Peru and the Canary Islands while at Birmingham, learned the basics of potato agronomy and production, worked alongside farmers, helped train the next generation of genetic conservation specialists, and was familiar with the network of international agricultural research centers supported through the Consultative Group on International Agricultural Research or CGIAR.

What I had never done was manage a genebank or headed a department with tens of staff at all professional levels. Because the position in at IRRI involved both of these. The head would be expected to provide strategic leadership for GRC and its three component units: the International Rice Germplasm Center (IRGC), the genebank; the International Network for the Genetic Evaluation of Rice (INGER); and the Seed Health Unit (SHU). However, only the genebank would be under the day-to-day management of the GRC head. Both INGER and the SHU would be managed by project leaders, while being amalgamated into a single organizational unit, the Genetic Resources Center.

I was unable to join IRRI before 1 July 1991 due to teaching and examination commitments at the university that I was obliged to fulfill. Nevertheless, in April I represented IRRI at an important genetic resources meeting at FAO in Rome, where I first met the incoming Director General of the International Board for Plant Genetic Resources (soon to become the International Plant Genetic Resources Institute or IPGRI), Dr Geoff Hawtin, with whom I’ve retained a friendship ever since.

On arrival at IRRI, I discovered that the SHU had been removed from GRC, a wise decision in my opinion, but not driven I eventually discerned by real ‘conflict of interest’ concerns, rather internal politics. However, given that the SHU was (and is) responsible, in coordination with the Philippines plant health authorities, to monitor all imports and exports of rice seeds at IRRI, it seemed prudential to me not to be seen as both ‘gamekeeper and poacher’, to coin a phrase. After all the daily business of the IRGC and INGER was movement of healthy seeds across borders.


Klaus Lampe

My focus was on the genebank, its management and role within an institute that itself was undergoing some significant changes, 30 years after it had been founded, under its fifth Director General, Dr Klaus Lampe, who had hired me. He made it clear that the head of GRC would not only be expected to bring IRGC and INGER effectively into a single organizational unit, but also complete a ‘root and branch’ overhaul of the genebank’s operations and procedures, long overdue.

Since INGER had its own leader, an experienced rice breeder Dr DV Seshu, somewhat older than myself, I could leave the running of that network in his hands, and only concern myself with INGER within the context of the new GRC structure and personnel policies. Life was not easy. My INGER colleagues dragged their feet, and had to be ‘encouraged’ to accept the new GRC reality that reduced the freewheeling autonomy they had become accustomed to over the previous 20 years or so, on a budget of about USD1 million a year provided by the United Nations Development Program or UNDP.

When interviewing for the GRC position I had also queried why no germplasm research component had been considered as part of the job description. I made it clear that if I was considered for the position, I would expect to develop a research program on rice genetic resources. That indeed became the situation.


Once in post at IRRI, I asked lots of questions. For at least six months until the end of 1991, I made no decisions about changes in direction for the genebank until I better understood how it operated and what constraints it faced. I also had to size up the caliber of staff, and develop a plan for further staff recruitment. I did persuade IRRI management to increase resource allocation to the genebank, and we were then able to hire technical staff to support many time critical areas.

But one easy decision I did make early on was to change the name of the genebank.  As I’ve already mentioned, its name was the ‘International Rice Germplasm Center’, but it didn’t seem logical to place one center within another, IRGC in GRC. So we changed its name to the ‘International Rice Genebank’, while retaining the acronym IRGC (which was used for all accessions in the germplasm collection) to refer to International Rice Genebank Collection.

In various blog posts over the past year or so, I have written extensively about the genebank at IRRI, so I shall not repeat those details here, but provide a summary only.

I realized very quickly that each staff member had to have specific responsibilities and accountability. We needed a team of mutually-supportive professionals. In a recent email from one of my staff, he mentioned that the genebank today was reaping the harvest of the ‘seeds I’d sown’ 25 years ago. But, as I replied, one has to have good seeds to begin with. And the GRC staff were (and are) in my opinion quite exceptional.

In terms of seed management, we beefed up the procedures to regenerate and dry seeds, developed protocols for routine seed viability testing, and eliminated duplicate samples of genebank accessions that were stored in different locations, establishing an Active Collection (at +4ºC, or thereabouts) and a Base Collection (held at -18ºC). Pola de Guzman was made Genebank Manager, and Ato Reaño took responsibility for all field operations. Our aim was not only to improve the quality of seed being conserved in the genebank, but also to eliminate (in the shortest time possible) the large backlog of samples to be processed and added to the collection.

Dr Kameswara Rao (from IRRI’s sister center ICRISAT, based in Hyderabad, India) joined GRC to work on the relationship between seed quality and seed growing environment. He had received his PhD from the University of Reading, and this research had started as a collaboration with Professor Richard Ellis there. Rao’s work led to some significant changes to our seed production protocols.

Since I retired, I have been impressed to see how research on seed physiology and conservation, led by Dr Fiona Hay (now at Aarhus University in Denmark) has moved on yet again. Take a look at this story I posted in 2015.

Screen house space for the valuable wild species collection was doubled, and Soccie Almazan appointed as  wild species curator.

One of the most critical issues I had to address was data management, which was in quite a chaotic state, with data on the Asian rice samples (known as Oryza sativa), the African rices (O. glaberrima), and the remaining 20+ wild species managed in separate databases that could not ‘talk’ to each another. We needed a unified data system, handling all aspects of genebank management, germplasm regeneration, characterization and evaluation, and germplasm exchange. We spent about three years building that system, the International Rice Genebank Collection Information System (IRGCIS). It was complicated because data had been coded differently for the two cultivated and wild species, that I have written about here. That’s a genebank lesson that needs to be better appreciated in the genebank community. My colleagues Adel Alcantara, Vanji Guevarra, and Myrna Oliva did a splendid job, which was methodical and thorough.

In 1995 we released the first edition of a genebank operations manual for the International Rice Genebank, something that other genebanks have only recently got round to.

Our germplasm research focused on four areas:

  • seed conservation (with Richard Ellis at the University of Reading, among others);
  • the use of molecular markers to better manage and use the rice collection (with colleagues at the University of Birmingham and the John Innes Centre in Norwich);
  • biosystematics of rice, concentrating on the closest wild relative species (led by Dr Bao-Rong Lu and supported by Yvette Naredo and the late Amy Juliano);
  • on farm conservation – a project led by French geneticist Dr Jean-Louis Pham and social anthropologists Dr Mauricio Bellon and Steve Morin.

At the beginning of the 1990s there were no genome data to support the molecular characterization of rice. Our work with molecular markers was among use these to study a germplasm collection. The research we published on association analysis is probably the first paper that showed this relationship between markers and morphological characteristics or traits.

In 1994, I developed a 5-year project proposal for almost USD3.3 million that we submitted for support to the Swiss Development Cooperation. The three project components included:

  • germplasm exploration (165 collecting missions in 22 countries), with about half of the germplasm collected in Laos; most of the collected germplasm was duplicated at that time in the International Rice Genebank;
  • training: 48 courses or on-the-job opportunities between 1995 and 1999 in 14 countries or at IRRI in Los Baños, for more than 670 national program staff;
  • on farm conservation to:
    • to increase knowledge on farmers’ management of rice diversity, the factors that
      influence it, and its genetic implications;
    • to identify strategies to involve farmers’ managed systems in the overall conservation of
      rice genetic resources.

I was ably assisted in the day-to-day management of the project by my colleague Eves Loresto, a long-time employee at IRRI who sadly passed away a few years back.

When I joined IRRI in 1991 there were just under 79,000 rice samples in the genebank. Through the Swiss-funded project we increased the collection by more than 30%. Since I left the genebank in 2001 that number has increased to over 136,000 making it the largest collection of rice germplasm in the world.

We conducted training courses in many countries in Asia and Africa. The on-farm research was based in the Philippines, Vietnam, and eastern India. It was one of the first projects to bring together a population geneticist and a social anthropologist working side-by-side to understand how, why, and when farmers grew different rice varieties, and what incentives (if any) would induce them to continue to grow them.

The final report of this 5-year project can be read here. We released the report in 2000 on an interactive CD-ROM, including almost 1000 images taken at many of the project sites, training courses, or during germplasm exploration. However, the links in the report are not active on this blog.

During my 10 year tenure of GRC, I authored/coauthored 33 research papers on various aspects of rice genetic resources, 1 co-edited book, 14 book chapters, and 23 papers in the so-called ‘grey’ literature, as well as making 33 conference presentations. Check out all the details in this longer list, and there are links to PDF files for many of the publications.


In 1993 I was elected chair of the Inter-Center Working Group on Genetic Resources, and worked closely with Geoff Hawtin at IPGRI, and his deputy Masa Iwanaga (an old colleague from CIP), to develop the CGIAR’s System-wide Genetic Resources Program or SGRP. Under the auspices of the SGRP I organized a workshop in 1999 on the application of comparative genetics to genebank collections.

Professor John Barton

With the late John Barton, Professor of Law at Stanford University, we developed IRRI’s first policy on intellectual property rights focusing on the management, exchange and use of rice genetic resources. This was later expanded into a policy document covering all aspects of IRRI’s research.

The 1990s were a busy decade, germplasm-wise, at IRRI and in the wider genetic resources community. The Convention on Biological Diversity had come into force in 1993, and many countries were enacting their own legislation (such as Executive Order 247 in the Philippines in 1995) governing access to and use sovereign genetic resources. It’s remarkable therefore that we were able to accomplish so much collecting between 1995 and 2000, and that national programs had trust in the IRG to safely conserve duplicate samples from national collections.

Ron Cantrell

All good things come to an end, and in January 2001 I was asked by then Director General Ron Cantrell to leave GRC and become the institute’s Director for Program Planning and Coordination (that became Communications two years later as I took on line management responsibility for Communication and Publications Services, IT, and the library). On 30 April, I said ‘goodbye’ to my GRC colleagues to move to my new office across the IRRI campus, although I kept a watching brief over GRC for the next year until my successor, Dr Ruaraidh Sackville Hamilton, arrived in Los Baños.

Listen to Ruaraidh and his staff talking about the genebank.


So, after a decade with GRC I moved into IRRI’s senior management team and set about bringing a modicum of rationale to the institute’s resource mobilization initiatives, and management of its overall research project portfolio. I described here how it all started. The staff I was able to recruit were outstanding. Running DPPC was a bit like running a genebank: there were many individual processes and procedures to manage the various research projects, report back to donors, submit grant proposals and the like. Research projects were like ‘genebank accessions’ – all tied together by an efficient data management system that we built in an initiative led by Eric Clutario (seen standing on the left below next to me).

From my DPPC vantage point, it was interesting to watch Ruaraidh take GRC to the next level, adding a new cold storage room, and using bar-coding to label all seed packets, a great addition to the data management effort. With Ken McNally’s genomics research, IRRI has been at the forefront of studies to explore the diversity of genetic diversity in germplasm collections.

Last October, the International Rice Genebank was the first to receive in-perpetuity funding from the Crop Trust. I’d like to think that the significant changes we made in the 1990s to the genebank and management of rice germplasm kept IRRI ahead of the curve, and contributed to its selection for this funding.

I completed a few publications during this period, and finally retired from IRRI at the end of April 2010. Since retirement I have co-edited a second book on climate change and genetic resources, led a review of the CGIAR’s genebank program, and was honored by HM The Queen as an Officer of the British Empire (OBE) in 2012 for my work at IRRI.

So, as 2018 draws to a close, I can look back on almost 50 years involvement in the conservation and use of plant genetic resources for food and agriculture. What an interesting—and fulfilling—journey it has been.


 

 

 

 

Discovering Vavilov, and building a career in plant genetic resources: (2) Training the next generation of specialists in the 1980s

When, in the mid- to late-60s, Jack Hawkes was planning a one-year MSc course, Conservation and Utilization of Plant Genetic Resources (CUPGR), at the University of Birmingham (in the Department of Botany), Sir Otto Frankel (that doyen of the genetic resources movement) predicted that the course would probably have a lifetime of just 20 years, at most. By then, he assumed, all the persons who needed such training would have passed through the university’s doors. Job done! Well, it didn’t turn out quite that way.

The first cohort of four students graduated in September 1970, when I (and four others) arrived at the university to begin our careers in plant genetic resources. In 1989, the course celebrated its 20th anniversary. But there was still a demand, and Birmingham would continue to offer graduate training (and short course modules) in genetic resources for the next 15 or so years before dwindling applications and staff retirements made the course no longer viable.

Over its lifetime, I guess at least 500 MSc and Short Course students from more than 100 countries received their training in genetic conservation and use. So, for many years, the University of Birmingham lay at the heart of the growing genetic resources movement, and played a pivotal role in ensuring that national programs worldwide had the trained personnel to set up and sustain genetic conservation of local crops and wild species. Many Birmingham graduates went on to lead national genetic resources programs, as evidenced by the number who attended the 4th International Technical Conference on Plant Genetic Resources convened by FAO in Leipzig in June 1996.

Birmingham PGR students at the Leipzig conference in 1996. Trevor Sykes (class of 1969) is wearing the red tie, in the middle of the front row, standing next to Andrea Clausen (Argentina) on his left. Geoff Hawtin, then Director General of IPGRI is fourth from the right (On the back row), and Lyndsey Withers (who gave a course on in vitro conservation to Birmingham students) is second from the right on the front row (standing in between Liz Matos (from Angola) on her left, and the late Rosa Kambuou (Papua New Guinea).


In April 1981, I joined that training effort as a faculty member at the university. For the previous eight years, I had been working for the International Potato Center (CIP) in Peru and Costa Rica. Around September 1980 (a couple months before I left Costa Rica to return to Lima and my next assignment with CIP), I was made aware that a Lectureship had just been advertised in the Department of Plant Biology (as the Department of Botany had been renamed) to contribute to the MSc course curriculum.

Jack Hawkes was due to retire in September 1982 after he reached the mandatory retirement age (for full professors) of 67. He persuaded the university to create a lectureship in his department to cover some of the important topics that he would vacate, primarily in crop diversity and evolution.

After my arrival in Birmingham, I didn’t have any specific duties for first four months. With the intake of the 1981-82 cohort, however, it was ‘full steam ahead’ and my teaching load remained much the same for the next decade. My teaching focused on crop diversity and evolution, germplasm exploration, and agricultural systems, although I made some small contributions to other topics as well.

I also took on the role of Short Course Tutor for those who came to study on one or both of the semester modules (about 12 weeks each).

Since its inception in 1969, the overall structure of the course remained much the same, with about nine months of theory, followed by written examinations. The curriculum varied to some degree over the lifetime of the course, as did the content as new biology opened new opportunities to study, conserve, and use genetic resources.

Following the examinations, all students completed a three-month research project and submitted a dissertation around the middle of September, which was examined by an external examiner. The first external examiner, from 1970-1972, was Professor Norman Simmonds, then Director of the Scottish Plant Breeding Station, and a widely respected plant breeder and potato and banana expert.

Financial support for students came from a variety of sources. The year after I graduated, the course was recognized by one of the UK research councils (I don’t remember which) for studentship support, and annually three or four British students were funded in this way through the 1970s and 80s. By the late 1970s, the International Board for Plant Genetic Resources¹ (IBPGR) funded many of the students coming from overseas, and had also agreed an annual grant to the department that, among other aspects, funded a lectureship in seed physiology and conservation (held by Dr Pauline Mumford). A few students were self-funded.

Here are some of the classes from 1978 to 1988; names of students can be found in this file. Do you recognize anyone?

L: Class of 1978 | R: Class of 1979

L: Class of 1984 | R: Class of 1985

L: Class of 1986 | Class of 1987

L: Class of 1988 | R: Short Course participants, Autumn semester 1987

The first group of students that I had direct contact with, in the autumn of 1981, came from Bangladesh, Germany, Indonesia, Malaysia, Portugal, Turkey, and Uruguay. After nearly 40 years I can’t remember all their names, unfortunately.

The MSc class of 1982: L-R: Ghani Yunus (Malaysia), ?? (Uruguay), Rainer Freund (Germany), Ayfer Tan (Turkey), Dr Pauline Mumford (IBPGR-funded lecturer), ?? (Bangladesh), ?? (Bangladesh), Maria Texeira (Portugal), ?? (Indonesia).

Over the decade I remained at Birmingham, I must have supervised the dissertation projects of about 20-25 students, quite an intensive commitment during the summer months. Since my main interest was crop diversity and biosystematics, several students ran projects on potatoes and Lathyrus. I curated the Hawkes collection of wild potato species, and had also assembled a large collection of Lathyrus species from different countries and diverse environments. Some students wanted to work on crops and species important in their countries and, whenever possible, we tried to accommodate their interests. Even with glasshouse facilities it was not always possible to grow many tropical species at Birmingham². In any case, the important issue was for students to gain experience in designing and executing projects, and evaluating germplasm effectively. Two students from Uganda for example, studied the resistance of wild potatoes from Bolivia to the potato cyst nematode, in collaboration with the Nematology Department at Rothamsted Experiment Station.

Several students stayed on to complete PhD degrees under my supervision, or jointly supervised with my colleague Professor Brian Ford-Lloyd (who was the MSc Course Tutor), and I have written more about that here.

Immediately on joining the department in 1981, Jack asked me to take on the supervision of two of his students, Lynne Woodwards and Adi Damania who were half way through their research. Lynne competed her study of the non-blackening trait in a tetraploid (2n=4x=48 chromosomes) wild potato species from Mexico, Solanum hjertingii in 1982. Adi split his time between Birmingham and the Germplasm Institute in Bari, Italy, where he was co-supervised by Professor Enrico Porceddu, studying barley and wheat landraces from Nepal and Yemen. One of the methods he used was the separation of seed proteins using gel electrophoresis. His PhD was completed in 1983.

Lynne’s research on Solanum hjertingii was continued by Ian Gubb, in collaboration with the Institute of Food Research in Norwich.

Two Peruvian students, Rene Chavez (1978) and Carlos Arbizu (1979) completed their PhD theses in 1984 and 1990 respectively. They did all their experimental work at CIP in Lima, studying wide crosses in potato breeding, and wild potatoes as sources of virus resistance.

Malaysian student Ghani Yunus (1982) returned to Birmingham around 1986 to commence his PhD and continued his study of the grasspea (Lathyrus sativus) that he began for his MSc dissertation.


While the MSc course comprised my main teaching load, I also had some undergraduate teaching commitments. I did no First Year teaching, thank goodness! In the Summer Semester I had a 50% commitment to a Flowering Plant Taxonomy module as part of the Second Year Plant Biology stream. I also gave half a dozen lectures on agricultural systems as part of a Second Year Common Course attended by all Biological Sciences students, and I eventually became chair of that course.

With Brian, we offered a Third (Final) Year option in conservation and use of genetic resources under the Plant Biology degree. I guess during the 1980s some 40 students (maybe more) chose that option. The five-week module comprised about 20-25 lectures, and each student also had to undertake an practical project as well. It was quite a challenge to devise and supervise so many ‘doable’ projects during such a short period.


While all this was going on, I also had a couple of research projects on potatoes. The first, on true potato seed, was in collaboration with CIP in Peru and the Plant Breeding Institute in Cambridge. Over the project’s five-year life, I traveled to Lima at least once a year. This also gave me an opportunity to check on progress of my PhD students there.

In another project (with Brian) funded by industry, we investigated the opportunity for using somaclonal variation to identify genotypes resistant to low temperature sweetening in potatoes. The research had an important spin-off however for the genetic conservation of vegetatively-propagated crops like potatoes, as we demonstrated that genetic changes do occur during in vitro or tissue culture.

Knowing of my annual trips to Peru, the chocolate and confectionery manufacturers in the UK asked me to scope the possibility of establishing a field genebank in Peru of cacao (cocoa) trees in the northeast of the country. The industry had funded a project like this in Ecuador, and wanted to replicate it in Peru. Regrettably, the security situation deteriorated markedly in Peru (due to the Shining Path or Sendero Luminoso terrorist group), and the project never went ahead.


Brian and I collaborated a good deal during the 1980s, in teaching, research, and publishing.

Around 1983 he and I had the idea of writing a short general text about genetic resources and their conservation. As far as we could determine there were no books of this nature suitable for both undergraduates and postgraduates. Having approached the publisher Edward Arnold, we set about putting our ideas down on paper. The book appeared in 1986, with a print run of 3000, which quickly sold out. After Edward Arnold was taken over by Cambridge University Press, our modest volume was re-issued in a digitally printed version in 2010.

In 1988, we organized the first International Workshop on Plant Genetic Resources at Birmingham, on in situ conservation. The topic of the second two-day workshop, in April 1989, focused on climate change and genetic resources. We were ahead of our time! Proceedings from the workshop were published by Belhaven Press in 1990. It was a theme that my co-editors and I returned to in 2014, published by CAB International.


Around 1989, however, I was becoming increasingly disillusioned with university life, and had begun to think about seeking other opportunities, although none seemed to come along. Until September 1990, that is. One morning, I received in the mail a copy of a recruitment announcement for Head of the Genetic Resources Center at the International Rice Research Institute (IRRI) in the Philippines. To this day I have no idea who sent me this announcement, as there was no cover note.

Nothing ventured, nothing gained, I decided to submit my application. After all, IRRI was a sister center of CIP, and I was very familiar with the international agricultural research centers funded through the Consultative Group on International Agricultural Research (CGIAR).

Personally, I knew it would be a huge opportunity, but also a challenge for Steph and our two daughters Hannah (13) and Philippa (9). But apply I did, and went for an interview at the beginning of January 1991, learning three weeks later that I was the preferred candidate of three interviewed. All three of us were ex-Birmingham MSc and PhD, having completed our theses under the supervision of Jack Hawkes. My ‘rivals’ were managing genebanks in the UK and Nigeria. I had no genebank experience per se.

I was about to become a genebanker, but I couldn’t join the institute quite as early as IRRI management desired. I still had teaching and examination commitments to fulfill for that academic year, which would not be finished until the end of June. Nevertheless, IRRI did ask me to represent the institute at a meeting in April of the Commission on Plant Genetic Resources at the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) in Rome, the first of many that I would attend over the next decade.

Friday 28 June was my last day at the university. Two days later I was on my way to Manila, to open the next chapter of my genetic resources adventure.


¹ Around 1990, IBPGR became the International Plant Genetic Resources Institute (IPGRI), and later, Bioversity International, expanding its headquarters in Rome.

² One of the students in my 1970-71 class, Folu Ogbe from Nigeria, undertook a project on West African rice and part of one glasshouse was converted to a ‘rice paddy’!


 

 

Discovering Vavilov, and building a career in plant genetic resources: (1) Starting out in South America in the 1970s

Nikolai Vavilov

Russian geneticist and plant breeder Nikolai Vavilov (1887-1943) is a hero of mine. He died, a Soviet prisoner, five years before I was born.

Until I began my graduate studies in the Department of Botany at the University of Birmingham in the conservation and use of plant genetic resources (i.e., crops and their wild relatives) almost 50 years ago in September 1970, his name was unknown to me. Nevertheless, Vavilov’s prodigious publications influenced the career I subsequently forged for myself in genetic conservation.

Jack Hawkes

At the same time I was equally influenced by my mentor and PhD supervisor Professor Jack Hawkes, at Birmingham, who met Vavilov in St Petersburg in 1938.

Vavilov undoubtedly laid the foundations for the discipline of genetic resources —the collection, conservation, evaluation, and use of plant genetic resources for food and agriculture (PGRFA). It’s not for nothing that he is widely regarded as the Father of Plant Genetic Resources.

Almost 76 years on from his death, we now understand much more about the genetic diversity of crops than we ever dreamed possible, even as recently as the turn of the Millennium, thanks to developments in molecular biology and genomics. The sequencing of crop genomes (which seems to get cheaper and easier by the day) opens up significant opportunities for not only understanding how diversity is distributed among crops and species, but how it functions and can be used to breed new crop varieties that will feed a growing world population struggling under the threat of environmental challenges such as climate change.

These tools were not available to Vavilov. He used his considerable intellect and powers of observation to understand the diversity of many crop species (and their wild relatives) that he and his associates collected around the world. Which student of genetic resources can fail to be impressed by Vavilov’s theories on the origins of crops and how they varied among regions.

In my own small way, I followed in Vavilov’s footsteps for the next 40 years. I can’t deny that I was fortunate. I was in the right place at the right time. I had some of the best connections. I met some of the leading lights such as Sir Otto Frankel, Erna Bennett, and Jack Harlan, to name just three. I became involved in genetic conservation just as the world was beginning to take notice.


Knowing of my ambition to work overseas (particularly in South America), Jack Hawkes had me in mind in early 1971 when asked by Dr Richard Sawyer, the first Director General of the International Potato Center (CIP, based in Lima, Peru) to propose someone to join the newly-founded center to curate the center’s collection of Andean potato varieties. This would be just a one-year appointment while a Peruvian scientist received MSc training at Birmingham. Once I completed the MSc training in the autumn of 1971, I had some of the expertise and skills needed for that task, but lacked practical experience. I was all set to get on the plane. However, my recruitment to CIP was delayed until January 1973 and I had, in the interim, commenced a PhD project.

I embarked on a career in international agricultural research for development almost by serendipity. One year became a lifetime. The conservation and use of plant genetic resources became the focus of my work in two international agricultural research centers (CIP and IRRI) of the Consultative Group on International Agricultural Research (CGIAR), and during the 1980s at the University of Birmingham.


My first interest were grain legumes (beans, peas, etc.), and I completed my MSc dissertation studying the diversity and origin of the lentil, Lens culinaris whose origin, in 1970, was largely speculation.

Trevor Williams

Trevor Williams, the MSc Course tutor, supervised my dissertation. He left Birmingham around 1977 to become the head of the International Board for Plant Genetic Resources (IBPGR) in Rome, that in turn became the International Plant Genetic Resources Institute (IPGRI), and continues today as Bioversity International.

Joe Smartt

I guess that interest in legume species had been sparked by Joe Smartt at the University of Southampton, who taught me genetics and encouraged me in the first instance to apply for a place to study at Birmingham in 1970.

But the cold reality (after I’d completed my MSc in the autumn of 1971) was that continuing on to a PhD on lentils was never going to be funded. So, when offered the opportunity to work in South America, I turned my allegiance to potatoes and, having just turned 24, joined CIP as Associate Taxonomist.

From the outset, it was agreed that my PhD research project, studying the diversity and origin, and breeding relationships of a group of triploid (with three sets of chromosomes) potato varieties that were known scientifically as Solanum x chaucha, would be my main contribution to the center’s research program. But (and this was no hardship) I also had to take time each year to travel round Peru and collect local varieties of potatoes to add to CIP’s germplasm collection.

I explored the northern departments of Ancash and La Libertad (with my colleague Zósimo Huamán) in May 1973, and Cajamarca (on my own with a driver) a year later. Each trip lasted almost a month. I don’t recall how many new samples these trips added to CIP’s growing germplasm collection, just a couple of hundred at most.

Collecting in Ancash with Zosimo Huaman in May 1973.

Collecting potatoes from a farmer in Cajamarca, northern Peru in May 1974 (L); and getting ready to ride off to a nearby village, just north of Cuzco, in February 1974 (R).

In February 1974, I spent a couple of weeks in the south of Peru, in the department of Puno, studying the dynamics of potato cultivation on terraces in the village of Cuyo-Cuyo.

Potato terraces at Cuyo Cuyo in Puno, southern Peru.

I made just one short trip with Jack Hawkes (and another CIP colleague, Juan Landeo) to collect wild potatoes in central Peru (Depts. of Cerro de Pasco, Huánuco, and Lima). It was fascinating to watch ‘the master’ at work. After all, Jack had been collecting wild potatoes the length of the Americas since 1939, and instinctively knew where to find them. Knowing their ecological preferences, he could almost ‘smell out’ each species.

With Jack Hawkes, collecting Solanum multidissectum in the central Andes north of Lima, early 1975.

My research (and Zósimo’s) contributed to a better understanding of potato diversity in the germplasm collection, and the identification of duplicate clones. During the 1980s the size of the collection maintained as tubers was reduced, while seeds (often referred to as true potato seed, or TPS) was collected for most samples.

Potato varieties (representative ‘morphotypes’) of Solanum x chaucha that formed part of my PhD study. L-R, first row: Duraznillo, Huayro, Garhuash Shuito, Puca Shuito, Yana Shuito L-R, second row: Komar Ñahuichi, Pishpita, Surimana, Piña, Manzana, Morhuarma L-R, third row: Tarmeña, Ccusi, Yuracc Incalo L-R, fourth row: Collo, Rucunag, Hayaparara, Rodeñas

Roger Rowe

Dr Roger Rowe was my department head at CIP, and he became my ‘local’ PhD co-supervisor. A maize geneticist by training, Roger joined CIP in July 1973 as Head of the Department of Breeding & Genetics. Immediately prior to joining CIP, he led the USDA’s Inter-Regional Potato Introduction Project IR-1(now National Research Support Program-6, NRSP-6) at the Potato Introduction Station in Sturgeon Bay, Wisconsin.

Although CIP’s headquarters is at La Molina on the eastern outskirts of Lima, much of my work was carried out in Huancayo, a six hour drive winding up through the Andes, where CIP established its highland field station. This is where we annually grew the potato collection.

Aerial view of the potato germplasm collection at the San Lorenzo station of CIP, near Huancayo in the Mantaro Valley, central Peru, in the mid-1970s.

During the main growing season, from about mid-November to late April  (coinciding with the seasonal rainfall), I’d spend much of every week in Huancayo, making crosses and evaluating different varieties for morphological variation. This is where I learned not only all the practical aspects of conservation of a vegetatively-propagated crop, and many of the phytosanitary implications therein, but I also learned how to grow a crop of potatoes. Then back in Lima, I studied the variation in tuber proteins using a tool called polyacrylamide gel electrophoresis (that, I guess, is hardly used any more) by separating these proteins across a gel concentration gradient, as shown diagrammatically in the so-called electrophoregrams below. Compared to what we can achieve today using a range of molecular markers, this technique was really rather crude.

Jack Hawkes visited CIP two or three times while I was working in Lima, and we would walk around the germplasm collection in Huancayo, discussing different aspects of my research, the potato varieties I was studying, and the results of the various crossing experiments.

With Jack Hawkes in the germplasm collection in Huancayo in January 1975 (L); and (R), discussing aspects of my research with Carlos Ochoa in a screenhouse at CIP in La Molina (in mid-1973).

I was also fortunate (although I realized it less at the time) to have another potato expert to hand: Professor Carlos Ochoa, who joined CIP (from the National Agrarian University across the road from CIP) as Head of Taxonomy.

Well, three years passed all too quickly, and by the end of May 1975, Steph and I were back in Birmingham for a few months while I wrote up and defended my dissertation. This was all done and dusted by the end of October that year, and the PhD was conferred at a congregation held at the university in December.

With Jack Hawkes (L) and Trevor Williams (R) after the degree congregation on 12 December 1975 at the University of Birmingham.

With that, the first chapter in my genetic resources career came to a close. But there was much more in store . . .


I remained with CIP for the next five years, but not in Lima. Richard Sawyer asked me to join the center’s Regional Research Program (formerly Outreach Program), initially as a post-doctoral fellow, the first to be based outside headquarters. Thus, in April 1976 (only 27 years old) I was posted to Turrialba, Costa Rica (based at a regional research center, CATIE) to set up a research project aimed at adapting potatoes to warm, humid conditions of the tropics. A year later I was asked to lead the regional program that covered Mexico, Central America, and the Caribbean.

CATIE had its own germplasm collections, and just after I arrived there, a German-funded project, headed by Costarrican scientist Dr Jorge León, was initiated to strengthen the ongoing work on cacao, coffee, and pejibaye or peach palm, and other species. Among the young scientists assigned to that project was Jan Engels, who later moved to Bioversity International in Rome (formerly IBPGR, then IPGRI), with whom I have remained in contact all these years and published together. So although I was not directly involved in genetic conservation at this time, I still had the opportunity to observe, discuss and learn about crops that had been beyond my immediate experience.

It wasn’t long before my own work took a dramatically different turn. In July 1977, in the process of evaluating around 100 potato varieties and clones (from a collection maintained in Toluca, Mexico) for heat adaptation (no potatoes had ever been grown in Turrialba before), my potato plots were affected by an insidious disease called bacterial wilt (caused by the pathogen Ralstonia solanacearum).

(L) Potato plants showing typical symptoms of bacterial wilt. (R) An infected tuber exuding the bacterium in its vascular system.

Turrialba soon became a ‘hot spot’ for evaluating potato germplasm for resistance against bacterial disease, and this and some agronomic aspects of bacterial wilt control became the focus of much of my research over the next four years. I earlier wrote about this work in more detail.

This bacterial wilt work gave me a good grounding in how to carefully evaluate germplasm, and we went on to look at resistance to late blight disease (caused by the fungus Phytophthora infestans – the pathogen that caused the Irish Potato Famine of the 1840s, and which continues to be a scourge of potato production worldwide), and the viruses PVX, PVY, and PLRV.

One of the most satisfying aspects of my work at this time was the development and testing of rapid multiplication techniques, so important to bulk up healthy seed of this crop.

My good friend and seed production specialist colleague Jim Bryan spent a year with me in Costa Rica on this project.

Throughout this period I was, of course, working more on the production side, learning about the issues that farmers, especially small farmers, face on a daily basis. It gave me an appreciation of how the effective use of genetic resources can raise the welfare of farmers and their families through the release of higher productivity varieties, among others.

I suppose one activity that particularly helped me to hone my management skills was the setting up of PRECODEPA in 1978, a regional cooperative potato project involving six countries, from Mexico to Panama and the Dominican Republic. Funded by the Swiss, I had to coordinate and support research and production activities in a range of national agricultural research institutes. It was, I believe, the first consortium set up in the CGIAR, and became a model for other centers to follow.

I should add that PRECODEPA went from strength to strength. It continued for at least 25 years, funded throughout by the Swiss, and expanding to include other countries in Central America and the Caribbean.

However, by the end of 1980 I felt that I had personally achieved in Costa Rica and the region as much as I had hoped for and could be expected; it was time for someone else to take the reins. In any case, I was looking for a new challenge, and moved back to Lima (38 years ago today) to discuss options with CIP management.

It seemed I would be headed for pastures new, the southern cone of South America perhaps, even the Far East in the Philippines. But fate stepped in, and at the end of March 1981, Steph, daughter Hannah (almost three) and I were on our way back to the UK. To Birmingham in fact, where I had accepted a Lectureship in the Department of Plant Biology.


The subsequent decade at Birmingham opened up a whole new set of genetic resources opportunities . . .


 

 

With The Beatles . . .

Last weekend, Steph and I spent a couple of days in Liverpool where, in the 1960s, there was an explosion of musical talent—the ‘Mersey Sound‘ (a somewhat patronizing video)—that had been influenced by and built on the late 1950s skiffle music of Lonnie Donegan, among others.

The greatest among greats to emerge from the ‘Mersey Sound’ have to be The Beatles – Paul McCartney, George Harrison, Ringo Starr, and John Lennon.

It was my 70th birthday on the 18th and, in celebration, we planned this special trip to Liverpool to take in The Beatles’ Childhood Homes and The Beatles Story, among other sights. A full album of photos can be viewed here.

We originally intended to drive to Liverpool. Not difficult in itself, you might imagine: a mere 109 miles. But as most of that journey is along the notorious M6 motorway, potentially it would have been 109 miles of traffic hassle, and long stretches of roadworks. And although the weather has been quite mild recently, November can be foggy and frosty. These were the points we considered when finalizing our travel plans in late August. So we opted to travel by rail from Bromsgrove to Liverpool-Lime Street (via Birmingham New Street).

As it turned out, we had a weekend of the most wonderful weather—clear skies, bright and sunny. No rain whatsoever.

Although our train from Birmingham departed about 20 minutes late, we still arrived to Lime Street before 13:00, and after a 20 minute walk to the hotel, we were out and about exploring well before 14:00.

Our hotel was the 4-star Jurys Inn, located right on the Liverpool Waterfront, just across the road from the Royal Albert Dock, home to The Beatles Story. It was also starting point for the National Trust tour of The Beatles’ Childhood Homes. Right beside the hotel are the 60 m (196 ft) Wheel of Liverpool, the Echo Arena, and convention centre.

We used Emirates Airlines airmiles (Rocketmiles) that were about to expire and a small cash supplement to pay for the hotel.


To begin with, let me take you back to late June 1967.

Just a month earlier, The Beatles had released their eighth and iconic Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band album. Little did I realize then that I’d be regularly visiting the home of The Beatles in the coming weeks.

Having just left school, I was waiting for my exam results and hoping I’d done well enough to secure a coveted place to study botany and geography, from October, at The University of Southampton. As I couldn’t spend the summer kicking my heels around my parent’s home, I found a temporary job for the next couple of months working for a local Leek company, Adams Butter (which I’ve written about elsewhere), as driver’s mate on the company’s fleet of trucks.

Adams Butter took raw, unsalted butter (mostly from Australia and New Zealand), blended and packed it into household packs, and distributed it to supermarkets and other retail outlets all over the country. Having emptied a truck of 25 tons of butter (in 26lb boxes), we’d head off to the nearest port to load up with another 25 tons of frozen butter, in 56lb boxes, to transport back to the dairy in Leek.

That first week saw me in Liverpool twice, and over eight or nine weeks or so, I must have gone back there a dozen times or more. But I haven’t been back there since, apart from a half-day visit around 2000, when I was invited to give a seminar at The University of Liverpool. Until last weekend, that is.

Fifty years on and Liverpool is a transformed city. Gone is the frenetic activity of the docks; there were no containers then. Once the River Mersey and port were bustling with ships from all over the world; a huge labor force of dockers manhandled produce off the ships. By the 1980s many of the docks along the Liverpool Waterfront were closed, and warehouses were derelict.

Now the Waterfront is a World Heritage Site, a place for everyone to enjoy. And also home to The Beatles Story, Tate Liverpool, the Museum of Liverpool, shops, cafes, and restaurants. During our visit, there were funfair rides set up along the Waterfront, as well as an ice rink, and some sections of the German market, all part of Liverpool’s run up to Christmas.


Our tour of the Beatles’ Childhood Homes started at 10:00 when the National Trust driver, Joe, met us in the lobby of Jurys Inn. We were an international party of just 13 persons (5 UK, 1 Irish, I Czech, I French, 1 Maltese, 1 Australian, and 3 Malaysian). The drive to the first property, John Lennon’s home, took just over 15 minutes. Once we were all strapped in and ready for the off, Joe turned on the music: Love Me Do, and it was Beatles songs all throughout the tour. What a way to start! And, as it turned out, three quite emotional hours.

‘Mendips’. 251 Menlove Avenue, Woolton (a desirable suburb of Liverpool) is a 1930s semi-detached house (that has retained many of its original design features). John was born in October 1940. When his mother Julia separated from father Alfred in 1945, John went to live with Julia’s oldest sister Mimi and her husband George at ‘Mendips’. It was felt that a two-room flat in a rough part of the city near the cathedral was not a suitable place to raise a young boy.

It seems that John had limited contact with Julia as he was growing up. But by the time he was 17 (in 1958), he had begun to see her more regularly. Tragically, however, she was hit by a car on Menlove Avenue, and died from her injuries. She was just 44.I have no photographs inside the house. As with the McCartney home, visitors’ cameras and mobile phones are locked away for the duration of their visit. It’s both for security and copyright reasons.

It was a powerful and emotional experience walking round John’s childhood home. I could feel a tear or two welling up every now and then. There were his school reports and lots of photos; also his bedroom where he wrote some of his early songs. And the porch where he and Paul tried out some of their songs. The National Trust guide encouraged us to go into the porch to test the acoustics. I didn’t sing but just clapped my hands; the acoustics were excellent. Apparently Paul has said he’d like to record some songs there.

John bought a bungalow for Aunt Mimi in Sandbanks in Dorset. ‘Mendips’ was never modernized after Aunt Mimi moved out. When the house came on the market in 2002, it was purchased by Yoko Ono and donated to the National Trust. The letter that Yoko Ono wrote to the National Trust explaining why she had bought the house is framed and lies on John’s bed.

On another level it was emotional for Steph in particular. So much of the layout and features of ‘Mendips’ reminded her of 30 Hillway, her parents’ home in Westcliff-on-Sea, Essex. That was a 1930s detached house.

We came away from ‘Mendips’ after an hour, to head to the McCartney home at 20 Forthlin Road, Allerton, just over a mile west from John’s house. John would visit Paul on his bicycle, cutting across the Allerton Manor Golf Club.

20 Forthlin Road is a terraced, former council house, to which the McCartney family, dad Jim, mother Mary, Paul, and younger brother Mike (Mike McGear) moved in 1956, from their home in the Speke. Forthlin Road was a step up.

Initially Paul and Mike shared a bedroom, but Paul eventually moved into a small front bedroom on his own. He continued to live there until 1963, after the other Beatles had already moved to London, and the band were already becoming a phenomenon.

Sitting in the front parlor, our guide Sylvia told us about how the McCartney family would make music together around the piano (I’m not sure if the piano there today is the original, but I think so; I tinkled the ivories), and singing in harmony. So when The Beatles started recording, singing in harmony with John was second nature to Paul (just watch the We Can Work It Out video at the end of this post). Paul originally played the trumpet, but dropped it to learn the guitar – which he had to modify and re-string because he is left-handed.

Paul’s mother Mary passed away from cancer in 1956, aged 47. Paul wrote Let It Be as a tribute to his mother.Dad Jim raised the boys with the help of relatives including Uncle Albert (remembered on Paul and Linda McCartney’s album Ram, released in 1971). Paul bought his father a house across the Mersey on the Wirral to which he retired; Paul still owns the house and uses it when visiting Liverpool.

Around No 20 there are many original and iconic photos of Paul and John writing and singing their songs in the same front parlor where we were sitting, taken by Paul’s brother Mike (who has the copyright, this being the reason why photography is not permitted inside).

Then after an hour there, we traveled back to Jurys Inn, to the accompaniment of more Beatles songs. What a marvellous way to spend the morning of my 70th birthday!


After a reviving cup of tea back at the hotel, we crossed the road to visit The Beatles Story exhibition. The story of The Beatles is told there through displays of memorabilia and photographs; it opened in May 1990.

From an early date until sometime in the past year, one particular display near the entrance explained the influence of the 1950s skiffle movement on The Beatles’ early musical careers. John Lennon played in a skiffle group called The Quarrymen which Paul McCartney and George Harrison later joined.

The display in question showed two boys, my elder brother Ed and me, playing guitar and tea-chest bass, entertaining our mother and two friends, Geoff and Susan Sharratt. That display has now been taken down, so I never got to see myself in The Beatles Story. But here’s my great-nephew Sammy standing in front of the display a year or so back.

The exhibition takes you through the band’s time in Hamburg at the turn of the sixties, their ‘residence’ at The Cavern, and onwards through their worldwide success.

There are so many iconic things to see and read about. It’s quite overwhelming. Here’s just a small selection; you can also see many more photos in the album I mentioned earlier.


We returned home to Bromsgrove just after noon on Monday. But before that, we took a 50 minute river cruise on the Mersey ferry, Royal Iris, from the Pier Head Terminal, across to the Seacombe Terminal on the Wirral, and then to Woodside Terminal at Birkenhead, before returning to the Pier Head. Here’s a short video I made, with Gerry & The Pacemakers (courtesy of a YouTube video) providing the appropriate soundtrack.

It was a relaxing way to enjoy the Liverpool skyline. And the weather still kept fine for us even though the cloud built up later, and there was some rain before we departed from Liverpool.

Then it was a brisk walk back to Lime Street in time to catch our train just after 12:30.

We arrived home, on time, just after 15:30, and there was a very nice surprise waiting. My bank had sent me a bottle of Moët & Chandon Impérial Brut champagne for my 70th! What a treat to end a great weekend. I can’t stop singing all those Beatles songs.

But there is a postscript to this Beatles adventure . . .


Fifty years ago today, 22 November, The Beatles released their ninth studio album, The Beatlesalso known as the White Album.

Many of the songs that appeared on this album (and some on Abbey Road in 1969) were penned while The Beatles were experimenting with transcendental meditation under the Maharishi Mahesh Yogi at his ashram in Rishikesh, India.

In 1968 (just a couple of months into my second year at the University of Southampton), I celebrated my 20th birthday by purchasing a copy of the White Album, which I had pre-ordered some weeks earlier. I believe I was the first person in our student residence, South Stoneham House, to have a copy. Word soon got around and it wasn’t long before my room on the 13th floor became the focus of White Album sessions.

This is how the album was reviewed in 1968; here is a current reappraisal. A re-mastered version of the album was released just over a week ago.

You can hear more about Giles Martin’s work on the album here.

What’s your favorite track? There are so many to choose from. But if I had to name just one, it has to be George Harrison’s While My Guitar Gently Weeps, on which Eric Clapton was invited by George to play a solo.

Anyway, enjoy this ethereal version that was released on Love – a 2006 remix album (by George Martin and son Giles) that accompanied a Cirque du Soleil show of the same name.

In the ultimate tribute to George Harrison, here is a multi-talented band, led by two of Harrison’s Traveling Wilburys band mates, Jeff Lynne and the late Tom Petty (and including Harrison’s son Dhani), interpreting this song; there’s a superb guitar solo from Prince.


The first Beatles vinyl I bought was Rubber Soul, released in December 1965. I remember that quite distinctly, because I held a small Christmas party for school friends in Leek, and Rubber Soul was the soul of that party.

I never owned the early albums. I didn’t really like their music until A Hard Day’s Night was released in 1964. After Rubber Soul, I acquired all the other albums on vinyl, but these were lost in a burglary in 1978 when we lived in Turrialba, Costa Rica. I replaced them on CD in the 1990s.

Compared to modern bands, look at how prolific The Beatles were, given the short periods between release dates of their albums. These are the albums I currently have.

Released in July 1964 and August 1965

Released in December 1965 and August 1966

Released in May 1967 and November 1967

Released in November 1968 and January 1969

Released in September 1969 and May 1970

And I also have these two compilations: Past Masters Vol. 2 and Love that I have already referred earlier.

Released in March 1988 and November 2006

No-one can deny the genius that is Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band. But if I had to choose just one album, I think it would be Revolver. And an overall favorite Beatles track? Probably We Can Work It Out (although I don’t like the ending particularly) that was released on a double A-side single (with Day Tripper) in December 1965 (and features on Past Masters Volume 2).

Happy memories!