The quiet man of GRC

GRC? It’s short for the TT Chang Genetic Resources Center at the International Rice Research Institute (IRRI) in the Philippines, which I had the privilege to lead between July 1991 and April 2001. I’m not sure if GRC is an organizational unit at IRRI anymore having just checked IRRI’s organizational structure dated April 2020.

However, GRC is/was the home of the International Rice Genebank at IRRI, the largest of its kind globally for rice. It safely conserves more than 130,000 samples (known as accessions) of cultivated and wild rice species from around the world and, as the most genetically-diverse collection of rice anywhere, it is the foundation for food security in many countries, especially in Asia. Rice breeders have dipped into this valuable resource for almost six decades since IRRI was founded in 1960 and the first germplasm samples brought to Los Baños by my predecessor, Dr TT Chang.

Renato ‘Ato’ Reaño

Anyway, this post is not about me or Dr Chang, but about someone who surely was the quiet man of GRC. Who is this low-key individual?

Why, Renato Reaño of course, known to one and all as ‘Ato’.

Not long after I joined IRRI, it became clear to me that Ato should become my right-hand man for managing all the genebank field operations, from multiplication and rejuvenation of seed samples, as well as establishing and looking after field plots for germplasm characterization (although the actual scoring of the materials was the responsibility for a few years of another colleague, Tom Clemeno, who passed away in 2015).

So, once I’d made an analysis of how the genebank was being managed when I took the helm in 1991, and decided on changes I deemed necessary (not universally accepted by all genebank in the first instance after several decades of working under Dr Chang), I asked Ato to take on the role of Field Operations Manager (although at that time he was officially still only a Research Assistant).

Ato retired from IRRI in March this years after more than 36 years of loyal—and very productive—service to the institute. Over the years, and as his confidence grew, taking on more responsibilities, Ato was promoted to new levels in the IRRI hierarchy, and retired as a Senior Associate Scientist.

Along the way he was elected to lead the IRRI employees association (an excellent indication of the esteem in which his colleagues held him), and he was also elected President of the Crop Science Society of the Philippines (CSSP) for 2006-2007.


Ato helped develop and implement many necessary changes to field operations. What is often not fully appreciated that for the long-term conservation of seeds in a genebank, what happens in the field during the growing season and how seeds are handled through the drying process are as important—if not more so in some respects—than the actual storage conditions. Dr Fiona Hay, a seed physiologist who was hired after I’d passed the GRC baton to my successor Dr Ruaraidh Sackville Hamilton in 2002, studied how the drying of seeds could be improved further, and Ato’s role in managing the rice germplasm in the field and the drying after harvest was pivotal. I’ve written about those aspects of rice germplasm management in an August 2015 post.

Ato made the field operations look straightforward. Nothing could be further from the truth. He had to handle thousands of seed samples each planting season, nurturing each one, ensuring there were no mix-ups.

He had a great rapport with his staff. Here he is with some of them in 2017 after they had finished the harvest of more than 4000 samples, and dried them successfully using the new approach that I referred to in the August 2015 post above.

Ato (second from right) with his field staff in 2017. Photo courtesy of Fiona Hay.

Each season (there being two in Los Baños, wet and dry) Ato took responsibility for growing thousands of seed samples, some for the first time after they had been acquired by the genebank, others for routine regeneration if seed viability had declined or seed stocks were running low, or for characterization of the different rices for a whole series of traits, such as days to flowering, plant height, color of grains, and the like.

But to have a better appreciation of Ato’s work in the field and how that contributed to the work of the genebank, just watch this segment, 2:04 – 4:29 minutes in the video below to see for yourselves.

Ato remained the quiet man of GRC during the years I was at the helm, but he constantly grew in confidence, taking his first overseas trip on behalf of the genebank to present a paper at ICRISAT in Hyderabad, India in 1995, and eventually being recognised by his peers and elected to the roles I mentioned earlier.

I also relied on Ato to help me interact with GRC staff. If I became aware of a staff ‘situation’ developing (perhaps an unease I could detect as I made my daily visits to every part of the genebank), it would have been difficult for me as Head of GRC, and as a non-Filipino who didn’t speak Tagalog, to easily get to the bottom of things. Then I would ask Ato to help find out what was going on, deal with it if he could, and only elevate issues to me that needed my intervention. This relationship worked well, and I was very grateful to Ato for the management support he provided in this respect.

Thanks for everything that you did, Ato. Your contributions to the long-term conservation of rice genetic resources will long be remembered and appreciated.

With Ato’s retirement, there’s just one of ‘my’ staff left. Genebank Manager Pola de Guzman will also retire later this year. It will finally be the end of the Chang-Jackson-Sackville Hamilton era.


 

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.

 

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.


 

‘Selfie’ has just taken on a new meaning . . .

Self isolation—the new ‘selfie’! Social distancing. New words to add to our vocabularies. How our lives have changed in just two weeks.

These are indeed extraordinary times, unlike most of us have experienced in our lifetimes. And all due to the emergence in central China and subsequent pandemic spread of a previously unknown zoonotic coronavirus, now named SARS-CoV-2, that is causing an acute (and deadly for vulnerable individuals) respiratory infection, Covid-19. And while I am a biologist, this blog post is NOT about the virus and its biology. Rather, I’m focusing on some of the issues around and consequences of this pandemic.

I was born in 1948, three years after the end of World War II. I never personally experienced the horrors of that man-made conflict nor indeed any conflict. I find it offensive that politicians, some journalists, and others on social media make comparisons to a conflict that most were born after. I’m not the only one to feel this way. I just came across this opinion piece in yesterday’s The Guardian by Simon Tisdall.

I remember (just) the exigencies of rationing that continued for many years after the end of the war. Also, the difficulties endured during the petrol rationing of the 1956 Suez Crisis. Since then we have not experienced any serious rationing in the UK that I can recall.

However, the Covid-19 pandemic is on a different scale. It’s not that the total number of patients infected with the virus has yet come anywhere near the 1918 flu pandemic, for example. But this virus is new, it’s very infectious, and lethality apparently high. The worry is that without appropriate control, the pandemic will outrun the capacity of health services to provide care for those who suffer from an acute infection. Whole countries are closing down. And while some ‘draconian’ measures (including curfews) have been introduced in some countries, these have yet to be imposed in the UK. ‘Yet’ being the appropriate word.

Having seen the shortages of some products in the supermarkets such as rice and pasta, hand sanitizers, cleaning products, and, inexplicably, toilet paper, I do wonder when rationing across the board will become the norm. How this pandemic pans out, everyone will have to become accustomed to a changed world. I’ll return to that theme later on.


Cometh the hour, cometh the man . . .

Or woman for that matter.

[Disclaimer: My politics are center left. If I’d had the chance (I didn’t as I was working overseas), I would have voted for Tony Blair’s New Labour. So any criticism of politicians below is not aimed at them because of their right wing political stance (which is anathema to me), but simply because I do not believe they are the right people in this time of crisis.]

As President Franklin D Roosevelt famously said in his first inaugural address on 4 March 1933, ‘. . . the only thing we have to fear is . . . fear itself‘. It’s apt to remember this under the present circumstances. We fear the unknown. In times of crisis, everyone needs reassurance. And, as Simon Tisdall commented in his opinion piece that I referred to above, the war and wartime analogies only stoke fear.

Step up to the plate our political leaders. Or not, as the case may be.

It’s really unfortunate that in these trying times that the governments of both the UK and USA are led by insincere populists, men who are more concerned about their own image.

Sound-bite Boris Johnson (Take Back Control, Get Brexit Done) is resorting to the same sort of rhetoric in his daily Covid-19 briefings (with the Chief Medical Officer and the Chief Scientist often standing either side) as he did during the Brexit campaign. Making claims he cannot substantiate, such as we’d defeat the disease in the next 12 weeks. Evidence? That doesn’t seem to matter to this charlatan, whose attention span and lack of interest are legendary. It doesn’t help that at critical points in any press conference and the like his body language betrays his insecurity. Such as rubbing his hand through his shaggy hair. Not the most reassuring action.

As a question from ITV correspondent Robert Peston unfolded just the other day at a No. 10 briefing, Johnson’s habitual smirk evaporated to be replaced by various degrees of alarm, bewilderment, fear even, and not the look of a Prime Minister at the top of his game. This is not what he expected after his December electoral victory giving him an insurmountable 80 seat majority, and the opportunity, he must have believed, to do just whatever his fancy lighted on.

Here is a damning opinion piece from The Guardian by Marina Hyde on 20 March, who writes ‘We are being asked to put our trust – our lives – in the hands of a man whose entire career, journalistic and political, has been built on a series of lies.’

It seems to me that the UK government has not developed a coherent Covid-19 communications strategy. Have a read of this 21 March piece from BuzzFeed about the behind-the-scenes debates, arguments even, between politicians and experts. At the beginning of the outbreak in the UK, Johnson used his press briefing to suggest, albeit perhaps by accident rather than design, that the old and vulnerable were ‘collateral damage’ during the epidemic. “It is going to spread further“, he said, “and I must level with you, I must level with the British public, many more families are going to lose loved ones before their time.” Yes, that’s indeed a strong possibility. But emanating from the mouth of a politician who is widely mistrusted, and who comes across as callous and self-centered, whatever issue he addresses, it was a communications disaster.

What a message to send out to an already fearful population. Read about that press conference here.

And this appeared in the Sunday Times today.

Dominic Cummings

If true, this is an appalling perspective from the Prime Minister’s Chief Adviser Dominic Cummings (whose credibility among a large swathe of the population has already taken a dive).

And, I’m afraid, Johnson’s often blustering delivery, and lack of clarity on issues that should be unambiguous (his classical references, his use of language that most never use or at the very least understand) have probably exacerbated a situation that was rapidly spiralling out of control.

Communications strategies should deliver straightforward messages in plain language. No ifs or buts. Johnson has catastrophically failed in this respect.

Take the issue of social distancing and whether pubs, clubs and other venues should remain open (until last Friday night when the government finally enforced closure). Clearly millennials (and men in particular) had heard the message that they would be less impacted by Covid-19. They ignored the social distancing advice. And it hasn’t helped that Tim Martin, CEO of pub chain Wetherspoons (arch-Brexiteer and now self-proclaimed ‘epidemiologist’ apparently) could see no reason for pubs to close and went public with his criticism of the decision.

But if I think that the situation is grave here in the UK, just take a look at what is happening on the other side of the Atlantic, a country without a public healthcare system that takes care of the sick, elderly and vulnerable, come what may. Given the behavior and responses of POTUS #45, Donald J Trump, it’s surely time to seriously consider invoking Section 4 of the Twenty-Fifth Amendment. Why he is still in power is the question asked in this article on the Slate website.

Here is a leader (a term I use very lightly indeed) who has ‘hunches’ or ‘feels good’ about the situation, ignoring facts, scientific advice and stating things that are palpably false, claiming originally that coronavirus was a hoax dreamed up by the Democrats, and then later stating, once the situation had deteriorated, that he knew all along that it was a pandemic. No change in behavior there. Every press briefing becomes a campaign opportunity. And when challenged, even by the simplest and most straightforward of questions, Trump’s reaction is unbelievable. Just watch him throw a tantrum and verbally attack a journalist a couple of days ago when asked how he would reassure the American people, following a comment from Trump recommending the use of chloroquine against the virus. Extraordinary!

And so, here is another piece from Rolling Stone (from 20 March) that Trump’s live briefings are a danger to public health.

And now, Trump is being hailed as a ‘wartime President’, hoping that it will boost his electability in November’s election — assuming that goes ahead as expected. For heaven’s sake! Just read this article from today’s The Guardian.

But if you want to see how any leader should behave, just take a look at this address to the people of Scotland by First Minister, Nicola Sturgeon, on 20 March. What a contrast from Johnson and Trump. I’m no particular fan of Nicola Sturgeon, but she got this just right.


It’s interesting—but also concerning—to think what a changed world will look like. Already, a group of 34 ‘big thinkers’ have waxed lyrical on this very topic just a couple of days ago in the Politico Magazine online.

Just click this link to read their predictions.


At the beginning of this post I suggested that ‘selfie’ had taken on a new meaning: self isolation. Here’s me, taking a selfie while taking a selfie.

Steph and I are self isolating since we are in that elderly, over 70 demographic. But if the weather is fine (like earlier today) we have gone out for a walk. We need the fresh air. So we went along the Worcester and Birmingham Canal a few miles from home, and encountered only one or two other walkers while maintaining the necessary social distance.


I came across this the other day. Maybe our antipodean friends will soon be evolving some pandemic language variants.


Stay safe everyone. WASH YOUR HANDS – repeatedly, and thoroughly. Here’s the best demo I’ve yet seen on how to wash your hands properly, using black ink in place of soap to illustrate just how it should be done. Never mind that the commentary is in Spanish. That’s not needed.


 

Remembering an old friend: Bent Skovmand (1945-2007)

In preparation for a house move this year (that is increasingly likely to be delayed indefinitely until the Covid-19 crisis has passed), I’ve been working through dozens of envelopes of old photos, getting rid of those out of focus or we can’t determine when or where they were taken. I have come across quite a number from the years I spent working abroad, but before I went digital in the mid-noughties.

During the decade (1991-2001) that I had responsibility for the International Rice Genebank at the International Rice Research Institute (IRRI) in the Philippines, as Head of the institute’s Genetic Resources Center, I met and collaborated with some remarkable colleagues among the genetic resources community of the international agricultural research centers supported through the Consultative Group on International Agricultural Research (CGIAR).

These specialists met annually as the Inter-Center Working Group on Genetic Resources (ICWG-GR). But unlike other CGIAR inter-center working groups, all of the CGIAR centers were represented on the ICWG-GR, covering crops and their wild relatives, animals, forestry and agroforestry, aquatic resources, irrigation management, and food policy.

I attended my first meeting in January 1973, held at ILCA, the International Livestock Centre for Africa in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia (that merged with the International Laboratory for Research on Animal Diseases, ILRAD, in Nairobi in January 1995 to form the International Livestock Research Institute, ILRI).

The ICWG-GR at its meeting in Addis Ababa in January 1993. L-R: Brigitte L. Maass (CIAT), Geoff Hawtin (IPGRI), Ed Rege (ILCA/ILRI), Ali Golmirzaie (CIP), Jan Valkoun (ICARDA), ??, ??, Masa Iwanaga (IPGRI), Roger Rowe (CIMMYT), ?? (World Agroforestry), Melak Mengesha (ICRISAT), Mike Jackson (IRRI), Murthy Anishetty (FAO), Quat Ng (IITA), Jean Hanson (ILCA/ILRI), and Jan Engels (IPGRI).

I was elected Chair of the ICWG-GR at that Addis meeting, and remained in that role for the next three years, overseeing a major review of genetic resources roles of the centers that led to the launch of the System-wide Genetic Resources Program (SGRP) in 1994. The SGRP was active for around a couple of decades, but has now been replaced by the CGIAR Genebank Platform that . . . led by the Crop Trust, enables CGIAR genebanks to fulfill their legal obligation to conserve and make available accessions of crops and trees on behalf of the global community under the International Treaty on Plant Genetic Resources for Food and Agriculture.

Enjoying a break in discussions in Kenya when World Agroforestry hosted the ICWG-GR in 1998. Bent Skovmand is on the far left.

I don’t remember the details of all the ICWG-GR meetings and their dates, but after 1993 we met at ICARDA in Aleppo, Syria; CIP in Lima, Peru; IITA in Ibadan, Nigeria; IFPRI in Washington, DC; CIFOR in Bogor, Indonesia; World Agroforestry in Nairobi, Kenya; and at IPGRI in Rome on at least a couple of occasions. But not necessarily in that order.

These meetings were a great opportunity to catch up with old friends, besides discussing and setting in train some important policy decisions for the centers regarding the management of and access to the important germplasm collections conserved in their genebanks.

Among the many members of the ICWG-GR, there was one with whom I struck up a particular friendship. This was Dr Bent Skovmand (above), a Danish plant pathologist in charge of the wheat genebank at CIMMYT (the International Center for Maize and Wheat Improvement) in Mexico.

Bent and me during the 1998 meeting of the ICWG-GR meeting held in Kenya.

I’m not sure why Bent and I hit it off so well. I think it was because we didn’t take ourselves too seriously. Perhaps it was our mutual love of beer!

Besides the ICWG-GR meetings, Bent and I would often meet at the annual conferences (usually in November) of the Crop Science Society of America (CSSA) held in different cities in the USA. Bent was a very active member in what was then the C8 Section of the Society, and what I think is now the Plant Preservation section or group.

Bent studied at the University of Minnesota in St Paul on the Minnesota Agricultural Student Trainee international exchange program, gaining a masters degree in 1973 and his PhD in 1976 (in plant pathology). He then joined CIMMYT and remained there for much of his career until 2003. Before heading the wheat genebank, he had also spent time with CIMMYT in Turkey.

In 2003 he was honored twice. First he received the Frank N Meyer Medal for Plant Genetic Resources from the CSSA. Then, Queen Margrethe II of Denmark awarded him the Knight’s Cross of the Order of the Dannebrog.

But, in some ways, these awards were bittersweet. CIMMYT restructured in 2003, and Bent was made redundant. Having spent so many years at a center that he loved, and based in Mexico (the home of his second wife Eugenia) it was a huge blow to have to leave. Not yet 60, he looked for other employment opportunities, and was soon appointed Director of the Nordic Gene Bank (NGB, now NordGen) in Alnarp, Sweden. In that position, he took a lead role in the establishment of the Svalbard Global Seed Vault, which opened its doors in February 2008.

Entrance to the Svalbard Global Seed Vault. (Courtesy of the Crop Trust).

Bent never got to see this event. Having been diagnosed with a brain tumor some months earlier and his health deteriorating rapidly, he passed away in February 2007.

There’s one particular memory I have of Bent. When in Rome together, he and I would try and eat, at least once, in the Taverna Cestia at the southern end of the Viale Aventino, near the Pyramid of Caius Cestius. Just inside the entrance, on a side-table, was a large meat slicer for carving prosciutto ham. It looked like it had been there for decades.

Every time we ate there, Bent would tell me: ‘I’m going to make them an offer for that slicer, one day.‘ He never did.

Sadly missed by his friends and colleagues in the genetic resources community, not just among the CGIAR centers, but more widely around the world, Bent left a strong and deservable legacy.


I found this obituary for Bent that was published on the website of The American Phytopathological Society (APS). But I have also downloaded it as a PDF file, accessible here.

Around the world in 40 years . . . Part 26: A sojourn in Sri Lanka

I visited Sri Lanka just the once. However, I don’t even remember which year or month. Only that it was the early 1990s, probably around 1993 or 1994. That was when I was planning a major rice conservation project at IRRI, and I wanted to determine if or how any Sri Lankan organizations would participate. As it turned out, for reasons that I’ll explain in due course, Sri Lanka did not join the project.

The Sri Lankan genebank, The Plant Genetic Resources Centre (PGRC) is based in Kandy in the island nation’s Central Province, of which it is the capital. It lies amongst the hills of the central plateau. The hills surrounding Kandy are covered in tea plantations. And, in many ways, Kandy is a magical place to visit. The scenery is outstanding.

Although I don’t remember in which hotel I stayed, I do remember it was perched on the summit of one of the hills, with views in every direction, as you can see in the gallery above. In the stillness of the dawn, I woke each morning to the sounds of birds calling to each other across the valleys. What a wonderful start to the day.

Kandy is home to a magnificent botanical garden (the Royal Botanical Gardens at Peradeniya just west of the city) and one of Buddhism’s most sacred places of worship, the Temple of the Tooth or Sri Dalada Maligawa, is located in the city center.


The Plant Genetic Resources Centre was opened in 1990. Its construction was a donation from the Government of Japan in 1989. So when I visited it had been open for just a few years—and looked like it. But, unlike one or two other genebanks whose construction Japan had supported in other Asian countries, the staff at PGRC were certainly making the most of their expanded facilities to store seeds and tissue culture or in vitro conservation.

Once again I am unable to name most of the people I met at PGRC, with one exception: Mr CN Sandanayake, who was one of my MSc students at the University of Birmingham in 1986.

CN Sandanayake talks with one of his colleagues at PGRC.

And as you can see from one of the photos in the gallery above, everything stops for tea!

When I discussed participation in the IRRI-led rice biodiversity project, it was clear that Sri Lanka had already made significant progress to collect and conserve indigenous rice varieties and wild species. My former colleague at IRRI, Dr Duncan Vaughan had visited Sri Lanka in the 1980s to help with the collection of wild rices.

Furthermore, PGRC had a cadre of excellent technical staff, and as you can see from the photos, excellent facilities for germplasm conservation. And, given the ongoing civil war there were many no-go areas in the country, especially in the north and east. However, in Kandy, there was no tangible signs of the conflict.

I made a side trip, with Sandanayake, to the Rice Research & Development Institute at Batalagoda, some 50km north of Kandy. Here are a couple of photos I took on that journey.

There I met with MS Dhanapala, a rice breeder who had also come to Birmingham in the 1980s to attend short courses on plant genetic resources, and also spend some time in the Department of Genetics.

Sitting, L-R: Dhanapala, me, Sandanayake. I don’t remember the names of those standing.

Sri Lanka has had a very successful rice breeding program, and many of its varieties have been adopted throughout Asia, after being shared and trialled through INGER, the IRRI-led International Network for the Genetic Evaluation of Rice, that I wrote about in 2015.


Now to return to Kandy tourism.

The Royal Botanic Gardens at Peradeniya cover almost 150 acres. There are wide open spaces to wander around, but also exquisite orchid houses to enjoy, with a multiplicity of species and varieties to take in.

As I mentioned, the Temple of the Tooth is a sacred shrine to Buddhists, and although not overrun with pilgrims during my visit was, nevertheless, quite busy.

One of the most impressive exhibits, in a side room, is a huge, stuffed elephant that died in 1988. This was Raja, a tusker who led ceremonial processions from the Temple for over 50 years.

All too soon my stay in Kandy was over, and I headed down to Colombo on the west coast to take my flight back to Singapore, and from there to the Philippines. It’s certainly a country I would like to return to.


 

Around the world in 40 years . . . Part 25: Walking the Great Wall of China

During the nineteen years I spent in the Far East, I visited China just twice. The first time was in March 1995, and this post is all about that visit. It must have been in 2009 that I was in China again, for the annual meeting of the CGIAR (Consultative Group on International Agricultural Research) held in Beijing, just across the street from the famous Beijing National Stadium (aka Bird’s Nest) built for the 2008 Olympic Games.

However, back to 1995.

Dr Bao-Rong Lu

A year earlier I had recruited Dr Bao-Rong Lu (a Chinese national from the southwest Sichuan Province) to work in IRRI’s Genetic Resources Center (GRC) on the diversity of wild rice species. Bao-Rong had just completed his PhD in Sweden at the Swedish University of Agriculture under the supervision Professor Roland von Bothmer, studying the cytogenetics of wheat species, if memory serves me correctly. He had also spent some months working at the Institute of Botany, The Chinese Academy of Sciences (IB-CAS), in Beijing prior to joining IRRI.

With a major rice biodiversity project getting underway at IRRI in 1995, I decided that a visit to China with Bao-Rong was the appropriate moment to initiate some further contacts and possible collaboration. Our visit took in three cities: Beijing, Hangzhou (in Zhejiang Province west of Shanghai), and Guangzhou (Canton) in the south.

First stop was the IB-CAS where I met with the Director (whose name I cannot recall, unfortunately) and many of the staff.

With the Director of the Institute of Botany and staff. Bao-Rong is standing on my left, and the Director on my right.

I was invited to present a seminar about the International Rice Genebank at IRRI and its role in the global conservation of rice genetic resources.

There was also some time for sightseeing around Beijing, and this was my opportunity to tick off another item on my bucket list: walking on the Great Wall of China (at Mutianyu, about 45 miles north of Beijing).

As you can see from these photos, there were few visitors, unlike scenes I have seen in the media in recent years.

We also took a tour of the Forbidden City in Beijing, and a walk around Tiananmen Square. Again not crowded! In one of the photos you can see the Great Hall of the People behind Bao-Rong. During the CGIAR meeting in Beijing that I mentioned earlier, the official dinner (and entertainment) was hosted by the Chinese in the Great Hall. It’s massive!

The photos appear hazy, because it was. It was quite cold in Beijing in March, with a stiff northwesterly breeze blowing over the city, laden with dust from the far west of China. It felt like being sand-blasted.

We also visited some Ming era tombs near Beijing, but I’m unable to find any photos of that particular visit.

On one night the Vice President of the Chinese Academy of Sciences hosted a small dinner in my honor. On another, Bao-Rong introduced me to the delights of spicy Sichuan cuisine. There was a Sichuan restaurant in our hotel where all the staff were from the province.

Trevor Williams

Later that same evening, as Bao-Rong and I were enjoying a beer in the bar overlooking the hotel reception, I saw someone who I recognised enter the dining room. I had to investigate. And, lo and behold, it was Trevor Williams who had supervised my MSc dissertation at the University of Birmingham in 1971. Around 1977, Trevor left Birmingham to become the first Director of the International Board for Plant Genetic Resources (IBPGR – now Bioversity International) in Rome. In 1995 I hadn’t seen Trevor for about six years, and so we spent the rest of the evening catching up over rather too many beers. Having left IBPGR by then, he was in Beijing setting up an organization that would become INBAR, the International Network for Bamboo and Rattan with its headquarters in Beijing.

After a few days in Beijing, we headed south to the city of Hangzhou (inland from Shanghai on the Qiantang River) in Zhejiang province. We were there to visit the China National Rice Research Institute (CNRRI) and meet with its director Professor Ying Cunshan. Professor Ying participated in the rice biodiversity project as a member of the project Steering Committee. CNRRI is the home of China’s largest rice genebank, which was modelled (inadvisedly in my opinion) on the genebank at IRRI.

With Bao-Rong and Professor Ying outside the entrance to CNRRI.

Inside the genebank with Professor Ying.

After a couple of days in Hangzhou, we headed southwest to the city of Guangzhou (Canton) and I experienced one of the most nerve-wracking flights ever.

Much as I am fascinated by aviation in general, I’m somewhat of a nervous flyer. And in the mid-1990s Chinese airlines were only just beginning to modernise their fleets with Boeing and Airbus aircraft. Many were still flying Soviet-era Russian aircraft, like the Tupolev (probably a ‘154’) that was assigned to our flight. On that morning, flights out of Hangzhou were delayed due to fog, and at the same time Guangzhou was also fogged in. Over a period of a couple hours, other flights (of mainly new aircraft) did depart, leaving just the Tupolev on the apron for our flight. Eventually the flight was called and we made our way out to the aircraft. Looking around the cabin as I made my way to my seat, it crossed my mind that this aircraft had seen better days.

Anyway, we took off and headed for Guangzhou. Approaching that city after a flight of about 90 minutes, the captain informed us that fog was still hanging over the airport but he would continue the landing. Only to abort that just before touching down, and returning to Hangzhou! My nerves were on edge. After refuelling, and a further delay, we departed again. This time we did find a gap in the fog and landed. As we were on our final approach and seconds from touch-down, a female passenger immediately in front of me decided to get out of her seat to retrieve her hand luggage from the overhead bin. That was the final straw for me, and I shouted at her, in no uncertain terms, to sit the f*** down. Not my best moment, I admit.

In Guangzhou, our destination was the Guangzhou wild rice nursery and meet with the staff (again I don’t remember who precisely). I believe the nursery was managed through the Guangzhou Academy of Agricultural Sciences. As in Beijing, I gave another seminar here.

In a 2005 paper, Bao-Rong and others has written about wild rice conservation in China.


Completing our visit to Guangzhou, I took a flight into Hong Kong (maybe under 40 minutes) to connect with another back to Manila.

Although China did not participate directly in the rice biodiversity project since the country had already invested heavily in rice collection and conservation, Professor Ying Cunshan served on the Steering Committee for the 5-year life of the project. We felt that his experience, and recognition among other rice scientists, would be an invaluable addition to the team.

I have two particular reflections on this first trip to China. First, in crowded areas the Chinese had little ‘respect’ for personal space, and I often found myself checking my pace of walking as others crossed in front of me, seemingly oblivious of the fact that I was there. And it wasn’t just me, being a foreigner. It just seemed the normal thing to do.

Secondly, I realised that I am not a very adventurous eater. Some of the dishes I was presented with did not encourage my appetite. There was certainly a lack of synchronization between my stomach, eyes and brain. I did find Sichuanese cooking delicious, however. In Guangzhou, where many ‘exotic’ dishes were prepared, I got round any difficulties by explaining to my hosts, through Bao-Rong, that I was vegetarian. And those dishes were equally delicious.

Bao-Rong remained at IRRI for two contracts, a total of six years. After he left IRRI in 2000, he returned to China and it wasn’t long before he joined Fudan University in Shanghai. He is now Professor and Chairman of the Department of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology, and Deputy Director of the Institute of Biodiversity Science. He currently serves as a Member of the Chinese National Biosafety Committee.


 

Where does our food come from?

James Wong

There’s been quite a bit of discussion in the Twittersphere in recent weeks that caught my attention, about the sources and origins of our food, in which botanist, science writer, and broadcaster James Wong (@Botanygeek) has been a lively participant (expertly educating, and oftentimes correcting misinformation that surfaces all too frequently on Twitter).

So where does our food come from? No, I’m not referring to the local supermarket! Nor the countries where it’s grown and exported to the UK, to land on our supermarket shelves, such as avocados from Peru or French beans (Phaseolus spp.) from Kenya, to mention just a couple of examples.

Rather, I’m talking about the regions of the world where our food crops were first domesticated from wild species [1]. In many farmers’ fields, there is still an enormous diversity of shapes, sizes, and colors, as well as response to different growing conditions or reaction to pests and diseases. Just take the example below of potatoes from Peru, varieties that have been carefully cultivated by generations of farmers in the high Andes.

(L): Farmer varieties of potatoes from Peru; and (R): a potato farmer and her husband from the Province of Cajamarca in the north of Peru proudly holding a prized variety.

These diverse crop varieties and related wild species are the genetic resources or agrobiodiversity (perhaps a term more familiar to most through its regular use in the media) that plant breeders need to enhance agricultural productivity, transferring genes between different varieties or species to keep one step or more ahead of changing climates or increased threat of new strains of plant diseases. Without access to this valuable genetic variation, plant breeders would be challenged indeed to respond appropriately to the many threats in the agricultural environment.

There is an ongoing interdependence among countries for access to genetic resources. Take the potato, for example, with which I am quite familiar. The UK potato crop ultimately depends for its survival on plant breeders being able to access different genes and breed them into new varieties. Where do these genes come from? From from cultivated and wild potatoes in Peru and neighbouring countries. Plant breeders at the James Hutton Institute in Dundee, Scotland, regularly dip into the species conserved in the Commonwealth Potato Collection. This potato example is repeated worldwide for most other crops.

Colin Khoury

In a significant open access article (published in the Proceedings of the Royal Society B in 2016) Colin Khoury (a Birmingham MSc genetic resources graduate) and his co-authors state: Research into the origins of food plants has led to the recognition that specific geographical regions around the world have been of particular importance to the development of agricultural crops . . . We estimate the degree to which countries use crops from regions of diversity other than their own (‘foreign crops’), and quantify changes in this usage over the past 50 years. Countries are highly interconnected with regard to primary regions of diversity of the
crops they cultivate and/or consume.

Colin followed up with a piece on the blog of the Union of Concerned Scientists in 2017, discussing the interdependence of nations: The evidence on countries’ predominant use of foreign crops bolsters the rationale for strengthening international collaboration on conservation of crop diversity and for making the exchange of all agricultural seeds as easy and affordable as possible. Our interdependence also boosts the argument for considering the genetic diversity of globally important food crops as public goods which should be openly available to all, and for respecting the rights of farmers to practice their traditional methods of conservation and exchange, not only in recognition of their historical contributions to the diversity in our food, but also in active support of its further evolution.

Just take a look at this interesting graphic (click to enlarge) that was published in the 2016 paper, and republished in the 2017 blog post. I think many readers of my blog will be surprised when they discover the origins of most of the food plants they take for granted.

Origins and primary regions of diversity of major agricultural crops. Source: Khoury et al. 2016. Proc. R. Soc. B 283(1832): 20160792.


However, the concept of centers of origins and crop diversity is not a new one. It was first formulated by the great Russian geneticist (and ‘father of plant genetic resources’), Nikolai Ivanovich Vavilov (born in 1887). See how his centers coincide with the map above. Vavilov’s ideas have been reworked since his death, but still provide a fundamental foundation for the study and understanding of crop diversity. He was starved to death in one of Stalin’s prisons in 1943.

I. The Tropical Center; II. The East Asiatic Center; III. The Southwest Asiatic Center (c0ntaining [a] the Caucasian Center, [b] the Near East Centre, [c] the Northwestern Indian Center; IV. The Mediterranean Center; V. Abyssinia; VI. The Central American Center (containing [a] the mountains of southern Mexico, [b] the Central American Center, [c] the West Indian islands; and VI. The Andean Center.

One of his great works, Five Continents (a memoir of his many plant collecting expeditions) was republished in 1997 on the occasion of his 110th birthday. It had never appeared during his lifetime.

Vavilov, NI, 1997. Five Continents. International Plant Genetic Resources Institute, Rome, Italy. ISBN: 92-9043-302-7


Then, as I was thinking through these ideas about food origins, I came across the two photos below. At first I couldn’t recall where they had been taken. Then I realized they must have been taken during the drinks reception after the half-day N.I. Vavilov Centenary Symposium, jointly organized by the Linnean Society of London and the Institute of Archaeology of University College London on 26 November 1987 to commemorate Vavilov’s birth. I was one of the speakers.

Top: with Joe Smartt (University of Southampton). Bottom: Chatting with Joe Smartt, with Prof. Jacks Hawkes (University of Birmingham, to my left) with another symposium attendee.

The papers were published in a special edition of the Biological Journal of the Linnean Society in January 1990.

Sadly, all my fellow presenters have since passed away [2].

In the first paper, 1. Preface, Jack Hawkes and David Harris state the following: Vavilov laid the foundations of modern plant breeding, stressing the importance of the wide range of genetic diversity in our ancient crops and in related wild species—a diversity that before his time had barely been used or understood by breeders . . . Not only this—the whole movement of crop genetic resources conservation as a necessary prerequisite for the new more resistant and productive varieties needed now and in the future can be clearly traced back to Vavilov’s seminal ideas . . . Vavilov’s theoretical studies on crop plant origins and evolution under domestication, the areas in which crops evolved and the parallelism in their diversity in particular regions also possess clear practical implications, as well as linking into prehistory and the beginnings of agriculture.

In the second paper, Jack Hawkes discussed the impact of Vavilov’s work. He had met the great man on his visit to the Soviet Union in 1938.

Geographer David Harris discussed the origins of agriculture and how Vavilov’s studies on the centers of origin influenced the work of many other scholars. Yet he concluded that with the discovery of new evidence about the origins of agriculture, Vavilov’s concept as such had outlived its usefulness.

I was privileged to be asked to contribute to this symposium, standing alongside three colleagues: Joe Smartt, Jack Hawkes, and Trevor Williams who had encouraged me to enter the world of genetic resources and supervised my research, and mentored me at various stages of my career.

Professor Hugh Bunting had been the external examiner to the Birmingham MSc Course on genetic resources when I presented my dissertation on lentils in September 1971. There was a link to Vavilov there, because his second wife, Elena Barulina, wrote the first monograph on lentils.

My own paper discussed how homologous variation among potato species was evident when looking for resistance to pests and diseases.

I only met Gordon Hillman on one occasion at this symposium. He made very significant contributions to our understanding of early farming systems and the domestication of cereals in the Near East.

In his paper, Hugh Bunting discussed how Vavilov promoted the inclusion of physiological and biochemical features alongside descriptions of morphology to understand how plants were adapted to their environments. The examples used were groundnuts and sorghum, crops which Bunting had studied in Africa over many years.

In the final paper, Trevor Williams (who was Director of the International Board of Plant Genetic Resources, IBPGR, the forerunner of the International Plant Genetic Resources Institute, IPGRI, and Bioversity International) discussed how IBPGR’s program of collecting and conserving crop varieties and wild species worldwide had been guided by Vavilov’s ideas on centers of diversity.

As you can see, there’s more to this story of our food and its origins than perhaps meets the eye initially. It’s a story that I have followed for the past 50 years since I first set out on my career conserving and using plant genetic resources.


[1] Avocados originated in Central America, and French beans come from South America.

[2] I’ve not been able to find any further information about Stuart Davies, co-author with Gordon Hillman, since his retirement from Cardiff University.


This book (ISBN: 90-220-0785-5), by Anton Zeven and Jan de Wet, published by the Centre for Agricultural Publishing and Documentation in Wageningen in 1982 is an excellent source of information about the crop and wild species found in the centers of diversity.

It was a revised second edition of: Zeven AC and PM Zhukovsky, 1975. Dictionary of cultivated plants and their centres of diversity.

Zhukovsky was a follower of Vavilov and further developed the idea of centers of origin and diversity.

Genebanks are the future . . . but there is a big challenge ahead

Our ability to adapt to changing climates will be determined, to a considerable extent, upon our ability to feed ourselves, to provide shelter and clothing, and for many peoples in many developing countries there will be problems in obtaining fuelwood for cooking or heating.

My close friend and former colleague Professor Brian Ford-Lloyd and I wrote that 30 years ago in the first chapter [1] of the book on climate change and genetic resources that we edited with Martin Parry.

We also wrote that to avert famine it would be necessary to raise crop yields and identify and use the sorts of genetic resources to contribute to this effort. Fortunately, these genetic resources are, to a large extent, already conserved in genebanks around the world.

In a recent post, I argued that, in the face of climate change, genebanks are the future. And while I hold to that assertion, I must also highlight a challenge that must be addressed—with greater urgency—and one that I already raised 30 years ago!

And that challenge is all about the potential impacts of climate change on genebank operations. I’m concerned about how rising temperatures and changing seasons might affect the ability of a genebank to produce good quality seeds during initial multiplication or thereafter to regenerate seed stocks.

We also have limited information how the environmental pest and plant pathogen load will change under a changing climate. That’s a particular concern for plant species that cannot be stored as seeds but are conserved in field genebanks. In this, the International Year of Plant Health, it is a particular genebank issue worthy of more attention.

Furthermore, we shouldn’t discount possible increases in genebank costs as cooling equipment works harder to maintain cold rooms at the desired temperatures of -18°C for long-term conservation (in so-called Base Collections), or just above 0°C for germplasm that is available for distribution and exchange (in Active Collections), the situation found in many genebanks.


Many (but not all) genebanks were set up in parts of the world where the crops they conserve are important, and where many originated, in so-called ‘centers of diversity’. That holds particularly for the international genebanks managed in eleven of the CGIAR centers, such as for potatoes at the International Potato Center (CIP) in Peru, beans and cassava at the International Center for Tropical Agriculture (CIAT) in Colombia, or rice at the International Rice Research Institute (IRRI) in the Philippines, to give just three examples.

But there are exceptions. CIMMYT, the International Maize and Wheat Improvement Center (located just outside Mexico City) certainly lies in the center of diversity for maize, but not wheat, which is a crop that was domesticated and evolved under domestication in the Near East and fringes of the Mediterranean. Another exception is Bioversity International, based in Rome that maintains an important collection of bananas (Musa spp.) as tissue culture samples (known as in vitro conservation) as well as samples stored frozen (or cryopreserved) at the temperature of liquid nitrogen (-196°C) in Belgium at the Katholieke Universiteit Leuven (KU Leuven).

You can find out more about the CGIAR genebanks on the Genebank Platform website.

As the network of genebanks expanded worldwide, with almost every country setting up at least one national genebank, many genebanks now hold samples of varieties and wild species from distance regions. And it does have some important implications for long-term conservation and regeneration, and exchange of germplasm.


Long-term conservation of many plant species in genebanks is possible because their seeds can be dried to a low moisture content and stored at low temperature. We refer to these seeds as orthodox, and we have a pretty good idea of how to dry them to an optimum moisture content (although research at IRRI has thrown new light on some of the critical drying processes). Provided they can be kept dry and cool, we can predict—with some confidence—how long they will survive in storage before they need to be grown again, or ‘regenerated’, to produce healthy seeds stocks.

On the other hand, the seeds of some species, many from the tropics, do not tolerate desiccation or low temperature storage. We refer to the seeds of these species as recalcitrant. There again, there is also a group of crops that cannot be stored as seeds but must be maintained, like the banana example referred to above, as tissue cultures or cryopreserved, if technically feasible; or in field genebanks because they reproduce vegetatively. The potato for example is grown from tubers, and for any variety, each tuber is genetically identical (a clone) to all the others of that variety. Although potatoes do produce seeds (often in abundance), they do not breed true. That’s why conservation of the original varieties is so important.

However, seeds do not live forever, and periodically regenerated if there are signs of declining viability. Or when seed stocks have become depleted because they have been sent to breeders and researchers around the world.


Climate change is already affecting crop productivity in some parts of the world. Increases in temperature (notably higher nighttime temperatures) are linked with a reduction of fertility in rice [2] for example. Stressed plants produce seeds of lower quality and, in wheat, have an effect on seedling vigour and potentially on yield [3].

Many (perhaps most) genebanks aim to grow their germplasm close to the genebank location, although this may not always be possible. Will the environments of genebank locations remain constant under climate change? Most certainly not. Temperatures have already risen, and are predicted to increase even further unless governments really do take concerted action to reduce our carbon footprint. While temperatures will increase, daylength will remain constant. Under climate change we will see new combinations of temperature and daylength. Response to daylength (or photoperiodism) is a key adaptive trait in many plant species. It is already a challenge to grow some genebank samples at a single location because of their wide latitudinal provenance.

Richard Ellis

Incidentally, 30 years on, it’s worthwhile to take a second look at Chapter 6 in our genetic resources and climate change book [4] by Professor Richard Ellis and colleagues at the University of Reading on the relationship between temperature and crop development and growth.

Seed quality is all important for genebank managers. Unlike farmers, however, they are less concerned about yield per se. They do need to understand the impacts of higher temperatures, drought, or submergence—and when they occur in a plant’s life cycle—on seed quality, because seed quality is a key determinant of long-term survival of seeds.

In a recent article, Richard wrote this: . . . when scientists breed new crop varieties using genebank samples as “parents”, they should include the ability to produce high-quality seed in stressful environments in the variety’s selected traits. In this way, we should be able to produce new varieties of seeds that can withstand the increasingly extreme pressures of climate change.

While a genebank might be able to regenerate its conserved germplasm closeby today, to what extent will these ‘regeneration environments’ become ‘stressful environments’ under a changing climate? What measures must a genebank take to ensure the production of the highest quality seeds? Furthermore, how will the pest and disease load change, and what impact will that have during regeneration and, perhaps more importantly, on germplasm conserved in field genebanks?

We were faced by a similar situation almost 30 years ago after I had joined IRRI. There’s no question that IRRI conserves, in its International Rice Genebank, the world’s largest and genetically most diverse collection of rice varieties and wild species.

Kameswara Rao

One important group of rice varieties, the so-called japonica rices originated in temperate zones, and it was tricky to produce high quality seeds in Los Baños (14°N). With my colleague Kameswara Rao (who received his PhD in Richard’s lab at Reading), we carefully analysed the factors affecting seed quality in the japonica varieties grown in Los Baños [5], and adapted the regeneration cycle to the most appropriate time of year. Given that water was not a limiting factor (there were irrigation ponds on the IRRI Experiment Station) we were not constrained by the changing seasons as such. This would not be possible for all genebanks where growing seasons are more differentiated, in terms of temperature and water availability.


I did look into the possibility of growing the japonica (and other ‘difficult’ varieties) at other sites, even outside the Philippines. What seemed, at the outset, as a logical solution to a challenging problem, became a logistical nightmare.

I was concerned that the International Rice Genebank could ‘lose’ control of the management of germplasm samples in the field unless genebank staff were assigned to oversee that work, even in another country. Afterall, the reputation of the genebank lies in its ability to safely conserve germplasm over the long-term and safely distribute seeds, conditions I was not prepared to compromise.

There were also various plant quarantine issues, seemingly insurmountable. Plant quarantine personnel are, by outlook, a conservative bunch of people. And with good reason. IRRI successfully operates its germplasm exchange (both receipt and distribution) under the auspices of the Philippines Department of Agriculture’s National Plant Quarantine Services Division (of the Bureau of Plant Industry). The institute’s Seed Health Unit carries out all the tests necessary to certify all imports and exports of rice seeds meet exacting quarantine standards. All samples received by IRRI must be tested and, if they are destined for future distribution, must be grown in the field at IRRI for further observation and certification. That would negate the advantages of producing seeds in a ‘better’ environment. Countries like the USA or Russia that cover a huge range of latitude and longitude have a network of experiment stations where germplasm could be grown, and under the same plant quarantine jurisdiction. For many countries and their genebanks, that will just not be an option.

So the challenge for genebank managers is to make sure the impact of climate change on germplasm management and exchange is part of risk management. And begin discussions (if they have not already started) to determine how inter-genebank collaboration could overcome some of the potential constraints I have raised.


[1] Jackson, M.T. & B.V. Ford-Lloyd, 1990. Plant genetic resources – a perspective. In: M. Jackson, B.V. Ford-Lloyd & M.L. Parry (eds.), Climatic Change and Plant Genetic Resources. Belhaven Press, London, pp. 1-17. PDF

[2] Shaobing Peng et al., 2004) Rice yields decline with higher night temperature from global warming.

[3] Khah, EM et al., 1989. Effects of seed ageing on growth and yield of spring wheat at different plant-population densities. Field Crops Research 20: 175-190.

[4] Ellis, RH et al., 1990. Quantitative relations between temperature and crop development and growth. In: M. Jackson, B.V. Ford-Lloyd & M.L. Parry (eds.), Climatic Change and Plant Genetic Resources. Belhaven Press, London, pp. 85-115.

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


 

Never have genebanks been so relevant . . . or needed

There has perhaps never been a better justification for conservation of seeds in genebanks, or ex situ conservation as it’s commonly known.

The devastating bush fires that have ravaged huge swathes of eastern Australia have highlighted the fragility of environments that are being affected adversely by the consequences of climate change. It’s a wake-up call, even though some of us were commenting on this a generation ago (and more recently in 2014).

While many news stories have emotionally focused on the impact of the fires on wildlife—the injury to and death of millions of animals—very little has appeared in the media about the impacts on plant species. One story stood out, however: the extraordinary measures that firefighters took to protect the only natural stand of ancient Wollemi pines at a secret location in the Blue Mountains west of Sydney.

In another story I came across, there are concerns that a wild species of sorghum native to East Gippsland in southeast Australia may now be headed towards extinction as fires swept across its habitats. Only time will tell whether this particular species has survived.

Bush fires are not uncommon in Australia and many other parts of the world. Vegetation is, however, quite resilient and, given time, often recovers to a semblance of what was there before fires ravaged the landscape, although the balance of species may be disrupted for a few years.

Clearly nature is under threat. Indeed, in an article in The Guardian on 20 January 2020 the acting executive secretary of the UN Convention on Biological Diversity, Elizabeth Maruma Mrema, is quoted as imploring ‘governments to ensure 2020 is not just another “year of conferences” on the ongoing ecological destruction of the planet, urging countries to take definitive action on deforestation, pollution and the climate crisis.’

Catastrophic fires, and other effects of environmental degradation and climate change, vividly illustrate the necessity of having a dual conservation strategy, backing up conservation in nature, or in situ conservation, with conservation of seeds in genebanks, where appropriate. It’s clear that relying in situ conservation alone is too high a risk to take.

About 25 years ago, while I was leading the genetic conservation program at the International Rice Research Institute (IRRI) in the Philippines, and conserving the world’s largest and most diverse collection of rice varieties and wild species in the International Rice Genebank, vocal lobby groups were pressing hard in several international forums and the media to redirect conservation away from genebanks (they were often referred to as ‘gene morgues’) towards in situ conservation, in nature for wild species or on-farm for cultivated varieties.

The criticism of many genebanks, including some of those managed at centers of the Consultative Group for International Agricultural Research or CGIAR, was not unwarranted. Insufficient attention was given to applying internationally-agreed genebank standards. This was not entirely the fault of genebank managers, both inside and outside the CGIAR. They were often starved of funds, living hand to mouth, year to year as it were, and expected to manage a long-term conservation commitment on inadequate annual budgets.

Standards in the eleven CGIAR genebanks have been raised through the Genebank Platform, supported by the Crop Trust. Between them, not only do the CGIAR genebanks conserve some of the most world’s important collections of genetic resources of cereals, legumes, and roots and tubers, but these collections have been studied in depth to find useful traits, and the volume of germplasm shared annually for research and production is impressive. Just take a look at the data for the years 2012-2018.

Other international efforts like the Crop Wild Relatives Project (supported by the Government of Norway), and managed by the Crop Trust with the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew have focused attention on the importance of conserving the wild relatives of crop plants as they are often genetically endowed with traits not found in their domesticated derivatives. My own experience studying nematode resistance in wild potatoes from Bolivia for example illustrated the importance of wild species for crop improvement.

Today, we have a whole new suite of tools to study the crop varieties and wild species conserved in genebanks around the world. As the genome of each new species is sequenced, another door is opened on the genetic diversity of nature, how it’s organized, and how genes control different traits. Indeed an argument has recently been made to genotype all samples (or accessions in the ‘official’ parlance) in a genebank. Certainly this is an approach that was merely a dream only two decades ago.

I still argue, however, that in tandem with the molecular analysis of crop diversity, there must be an in-depth evaluation of how different varieties behave in real environments. In joint research between former colleagues of mine at The University of Birmingham (Professors Brian Ford-Lloyd and John Newbury and Dr Parminder Virk) and myself at IRRI in the 1990s, we demonstrated the predictive value of molecular markers for several quantitative characters associated with crop productivity. Somewhat derided at the time, association genetics has become an important approach to study crop diversity.

I’ve been publishing about climate change and the value of plant genetic resources for over 30 years, beginning when there was far more skepticism about this phenomenon than today. At a conference on Crop Networks, held in Wageningen in the Netherlands in December 1990, I presented a paper outlining the need for collaborative research to study germplasm collections in the face of climate change.

And in that paper I argued that widespread testing in replicated field trials would be necessary to identify useful germplasm. With the addition nowadays of molecular markers and genome-wide detailed information for many species, there is now a much better opportunity to evaluate germplasm to identify gene sources that can help protect crops against the worst ravages of climate change and maintain agricultural productivity. Even though political leaders like Donald Trump and Scott Morrison continue to deny climate change (or merely pay lip service), society as a whole cannot ignore the issue. Afterall, for a predicted global population of 9.8 billion by 2050, most of whom will not produce their own food, continued agricultural productivity is an absolute necessity. The conservation, evaluation, and use of plant genetic resources stored in the world’s genebanks is a key component of achieving that goal.

Genebanks are the future! However, in a follow-up story, I write that genebanks still face a major challenge under a changing climate. Read more here.

Yes, we’ll meet on the other side . . .

Last night I heard the sad news—not totally unexpected—that my good friend and former colleague at the International Rice Research Institute (IRRI), Professor Martin Mortimer had passed away, aged 71 [1], on 22 December after a short illness. Diagnosed with a brain tumour only in November, he knew he only had a short time left to him. From a note he sent round to friends and colleagues at the beginning of December, he faced his fate with equanimity but without pain, calmly reflecting on life and the joys that his family had brought him, ending his ‘ramblings’ that he would see us on the other side [2].

Yes, Martin, we will. Rest in Peace [3].

After studying at Bangor University (formerly University College of North Wales [4]), he joined the faculty of the University of Liverpool in 1975, remaining there for 44 years, although only part-time more recently.

After numerous organizational changes at the university, he became Head of the Department of Plant Science, and latterly Professor of Agricultural Ecology in the Institute of Integrative Biology. In this video, Martin describes the important role of the institute in understanding and developing sustainable food systems.

Martin was a plant population biologist, studying the application of agro-ecology in tropical and temperate agro-ecosystems, particularly as it related to weed management in rice and wheat systems.

It was as a weed biologist/ecologist that Martin joined IRRI (seconded from Liverpool) in 1996, and spent seven years at the institute, returning to his university post in 2002. But he remained connected with IRRI for many years afterwards, often spending a few weeks each year participating in weed research and helping to develop collaborations with institutes in South Asia. He published widely in his chosen field, and Dynamics of Weed Populations (with Roger Cousens of the Western Australia Department of Agriculture, and published by Cambridge University Press in 1995) was a significant contribution.

In this photo, Martin is describing aspects of his research on weed dynamics to members of IRRI’s Board of Trustees (BoT). Behind Martin’s right shoulder stands Ron Cantrell, Director General, and behind his left shoulder, Dr Rudy Rabbinge, Chair of the BoT.

Martin was particularly proud of his role in fostering collaboration between the University of Liverpool and two universities in the Philippines, to promote graduate studies leading to Masters and PhD degrees. In 2018 he welcomed a delegation from the Philippines to Liverpool.

My first contact with Martin actually came during his visit to IRRI at the end of 1995 when he was interviewed for the weed scientist position. Over three Christmases, a small group of us staged ‘traditional’ English pantomimes. In the 1995 production, based (very) loosely on the story of Robin Hood and His Merrie Men, I played a camp Prince John, presiding, in one act, over an archery contest. We had already decided to ‘invite’ a member of the audience on stage either to fire an arrow, or be the target. I don’t remember which. Knowing Martin was in the audience, we chose him and he entered into the spirit of the evening.

Martin and I became firm friends, and he would often dine with Steph and me. It was a particular delight if our other good friend John Sheehy joined us as well, or we dined at John’s and Martin was there also.

A splendid evening Chez Sheehy, with (L-R): Steph, Graham McLaren, Martin, Sue McLaren, and John.

Martin and John sharing a tall tale.

Martin learned to scuba dive while in the Philippines, and he and I were often dive buddies on the weekends we were at Arthur’s Place together. On another memorable occasion, Martin and his wife Sue joined a group of friends to scale Mt. Makiling, the 3500 ft dormant (extinct?) volcano that dominates the skyline over IRRI and Los Baños, on May Day 2000.

L: Sue and Martin Mortimer, and Graham McLaren. R: me, Steph, Sue, Graham and Sue McLaren.

I haven’t seen Martin for a number of years, although we kept in touch by email. I always referred to him as ‘Lord Fazakerley’ (because of his Liverpool connections, Fazakerley being a district in Liverpool), and him referring to me as ‘Lord Brum’ (because of my University of Birmingham connections). Only earlier this year we had been corresponding frequently as we drafted obituaries for our dear friend John Sheehy for publication in national newspapers. Little did we suspect that Martin’s life would be cruelly shortened so soon afterwards.

I thought I had already finished blogging for 2019. But I couldn’t let Martin’s sad passing go unrecognised. My thoughts are with his family: wife Sue and son Hugh, and step-daughter and -son, Andrea and Fergus and their families.


30 December
After I had published this tribute to Martin yesterday, my friend and former IRRI colleague Gene Hettel (who was Head of the Communication and Publications Services) posted this short video on YouTube which brilliantly shows Martin’s sense of humour. In the video, Gene’s wife Aurora (who is from the Philippines) comments on Martin’s English accent. Enjoy!

8 January 2020
My friend and former colleague Gene Hettel posted this tribute to Martin on the IRRI website.


[1] Born on 7 January 1948, son of Dorothy Margaret and John Knowles Mortimer of Maidstone, Kent. Martin never knew his father, who died (of cancer) three months before Martin was born. Martin was brought up by his mother on a farm in Kent.

[2] Martin’s message to friends and colleagues was inspirational. The family have kindly given me permission to reproduce this excerpt, which illustrates Martin’s concern, as an evolutionary biologist, about the environment and humanity’s need to tackle head-on the challenge of climate change:

You will all know my attitude to climate change and the fact that I have been encouraging you all to address that major issue. As I die I see the rise of populism and selfishness as a major problem and it depresses me enormously, I genuinely think that the individual can do something about it. Lifestyles will have to change. And indeed the Mortimer lifestyle started to change (we moved house! ). My family bought into this and I would encourage yours to. 

[3] Martin’s funeral was held in Wrexham on 9 January 2020. Click on this link to view a copy of the Order of Service of Thanksgiving.

[4] BSc 1969 in Agricultural Botany; PhD 1972 in Plant Ecology (Studies of germination and establishment of selected species). After his PhD, Martin completed (1972-1975) a Lord Leverhulme post-doctoral fellowship at Bangor and the University of Wisconsin, studying the genetics of the Phytophtora group of plant pathogens.

In 1971, Martin joined the University College of Bangor Nepal Expedition under the leadership of John Witcombe, now a Professorial Research Fellow at Bangor. Photos reproduced courtesy of John Witcombe (the last four panoramic photos were taken by Martin). They made important collections of wheat and barley during this expedition, and these samples may well have been the material studied by Altaf Rao who was a student with me in genetic resources at the University of Birmingham, 1970-71.


This obituary, by his son Hugh, was published in The Guardian on 11 February 2020. A Celebration of Martin’s life was held on the Wirral (where Martin and Sue had lived for any years before moving near Llangollen a few years back) on 29 February.


 

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. 

 

 

A new beginning for biodiversity . . .

Earlier this week, I enjoyed—on catch-up TV—the third episode (about South America) of David Attenborough’s latest series on the BBC, Seven Worlds, One Planet. Here’s a taster of this wonderful series.

Once again, Sir David has treated us to a feast of images from the natural world, accompanied by his typical understated but informative commentary. And, as I was saying to Steph afterwards, cinematic technology such as drones with HD cameras has added a new dimension to natural history storytelling.

Most natural history programs routinely highlight loss of biodiversity (and its causes such as climate change), and Seven Worlds, One Planet is no exception. We live on a species-rich planet. But with so many programs about the natural world appearing on our screens, do we take for granted the diversity of nature and its millions of animal, plant, fungal, and microbial species?

Apart from Seven Worlds, One Plant, a couple of other biodiversity-related items on the radio have caught my attention in recent weeks.

The first, at the beginning of November, was an item on the early morning Today news and current affairs program on BBC Radio 4 (that I listen to in bed as I enjoy my early morning cup of tea) about an initiative to unravel the genetic code of all known 60,000 species of eukaryotes [1] in the United Kingdom.

Known as the Darwin Tree of Life Project (a most appropriate name!) it’s the UK arm of a worldwide initiative, the Earth BioGenome Project (EBP) to sequence the genomes of all 1.5 million known species of animals, plants, protozoa and fungi on Earth. That’s some challenge!

Each day, Charles Darwin would take a stroll along the Sandwalk at the bottom of his garden, where ideas about species and evolution not doubt swirled around his mind.

Why is the Darwin Tree of Life Project only possible now?

As stated on the EBP website: Powerful advances in genome sequencing technology, informatics, automation, and artificial intelligence, have propelled humankind to the threshold of a new beginning in understanding, utilizing, and conserving biodiversity. For the first time in history, it is possible to efficiently sequence the genomes of all known species, and to use genomics to help discover the remaining 80 to 90 percent of species that are currently hidden from science.

But also cost. Since the very first genome was sequenced in 1995 (of a pathogenic Gram-negative bacterium) the costs of sequencing have plummeted making it now economically feasible to even contemplate a project on the scale of the Darwin Tree of Life Project.

The UK component (launched on 1 November) is led by the Wellcome Sanger Institute in Cambridge in collaboration with Natural History Museum in London, Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew, Earlham Institute, Edinburgh Genomics, University of Edinburgh, EMBL-EBI (the European Bioinformatics Institute), and others. It is estimated that the project will take ten years to complete, costing £100 million over the first five years.

Dr Ken McNally

Molecular genetics and genomics have come a long, long way in just a few years. Just read the excellent 2014 analysis [2] by my former IRRI colleague, molecular geneticist Ken McNally how the latest developments in genomics (and related techniques) could contribute towards the conservation and use of biological diversity. And I’m sure things have progressed since Ken gazed into his ‘omics’ crystal ball just five years ago.

It’s remarkable how the science has accelerated in just a few decades. I completed my PhD under the supervision of Jack Hawkes, one of the world’s leading potato taxonomists and genetic resources conservation pioneer. In the 1960s (with colleagues from the immunology department at the University of Birmingham) he demonstrated that serology [3] could help clarify relationships between wild potato species (genus Solanum) [4].

As a graduate student at Birmingham in the early 1970s, I used a technique known as gel electrophoresis to separate potato tuber proteins, using the resultant patterns (position, and presence or absence) to better understand the relationships of different classes of cultivated potato.

Since the 1980s several different classes of molecular markers have been developed, and today—through whole genome sequencing—we can begin to decipher the complex relationship between genetic code and phenotypic and physiological diversity. We are beginning to explain better why species are different and how they are adapted to their environments.

My own research at IRRI and in collaboration with former colleagues Brian Ford-Lloyd, John Newbury, and Parminder Virk at the University of Birmingham in the mid-1990s, used molecular markers to analyse the diversity of rice varieties [5].

Another of the Birmingham-IRRI papers [6] was among the first (if not the first) to show a clear (and predictive) relationship between molecular markers (in this case RAPD markers) and appearance and performance of rice plants in the field.

Much of this rice research was aimed at understanding the diversity within a single species, Oryza sativa, which is grown over millions upon millions of hectares across the world. With hindsight, that research looks quite primitive, even though it was cutting edge at the time. Since the rice genome was first sequenced at the turn of the millennium, things have moved on apace, and more than 3000 genomes have been analysed to understand rice diversity.

But the Darwin Tree of Life Project will look across species, and hopefully keep a careful track of exactly which specimens/individuals are sequenced.

So, this brings me to the other radio broadcast I mentioned earlier. It was a discussion—about hybridisation between species—in the regular Thursday night In Our Time program, hosted by that doyen of broadcasting, Lord Melvyn Bragg with three biologists: Professor Steve Jones, Emeritus Professor of Human Genetics at University College London; Dr Sandra Knapp, from the Natural History Museum and a specialist in the taxonomy of the nightshade family, Solanaceae (that includes potatoes, tomatoes, eggplants, and many more); and zoologist Dr Nicola Nadeau of The University of Sheffield University. You can listen to that discussion here.

I found this discussion particularly interesting because in much of my research on potatoes, various legume species, and rice over many years I studied the relationships between species, and their ability to hybridise.

From the outset, Melvyn Bragg was working from the premise that species are distinct and rarely hybridise. That’s a reasonable point of view to take. After all, we can describe and identify millions of species based on the commonality of appearance (morphology) that individuals of one species share and make them different from other species. Like breeds with like.

Hybrids are less common between different animal species. Breeding behavior is a powerful isolating mechanism between species.

In plants, hybridisation is more common. However, there are many pre- and post-fertilization mechanisms that reduce the potential for hybridisation. It doesn’t matter if one can bring different species into cultivation alongside and successfully produce hybrids. In nature, many species never come into contact with each other because they grow in different habitats (in the same or different geographical regions). If they do grow in close (or relatively close) association, different species may not be reproductively compatible. Pollen from one species may fail to germinate on another or, if germinating, fail to achieve fertilization. Hybrid embryos may fail to develop, or even if hybrid seeds are formed, the plants are weak and fail to survive.

In the fluorescence images below (from pollinations between different tomato species that I used in class experiments with some of my students when I was teaching at Birmingham in the 1980s), a compatible pollination is shown in the images on the left and bottom. The other two images show poor pollen germination and growth in incompatible pollinations. Yet one or two pollen tubes have grown ‘normally’.

So, hybrids do occur, and are often successful in disturbed habitats that do not favor one parent or the other. There is a potential for species to expand their gene pools by exchange of some genetic material—or introgression, as it is called—that I described in one of my first blog posts in 2012.

Thank goodness plants can and do hybridise. As Steve Jones pointed out during the discussion, much of agriculture depends on ancient hybridisations and our ability to exploit cross compatibility between species. Wheat, one of the most important staple crops worldwide, is an ancient hybrid between three grass species. Potatoes evolved following crosses between different species (sometimes with different chromosome numbers) and hybrids were maintained by farmers since potatoes are grown vegetatively from tubers, not from seeds. Once a hybrid is formed then it can be maintained indefinitely through tubers.

Through hybridisation between cultivated varieties and wild species important characteristics or traits such as disease resistance can be added to the crops that farmers grow.

Just take this example from rice, showing the pedigree of the variety IR72 that was released in 1990. Many landrace varieties were crossed to produce this variety. But also very importantly, a wild rice, O. nivara (a close relative of O. sativa with which it crosses easily, and in the same genepool – see diagram below) was the source of resistance to grassy stunt virus, and it was this resistance that made IR72 such a successful variety.

One of the most important biodiversity initiatives in recent years has been the Crop Wild Relatives Project, started in 2011, managed by the Crop Trust with the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew and many partners around the world. It is funded by the Government of Norway.

The project has a number of priorities including collection of crop wild relatives and their conservation around the world. But also evaluation and pre-breeding, exactly the same type of approach I used in my own studies on species relationships. This research aims to determine the gene pools (GP on the diagram below) of crops and their wild relatives (a concept developed by Jack Harlan and JMJ de Wet in 1971 [7]), and provides plant breeders with useful and important information about the value of different wild species, and what traits can be exploited for greater adaptation.

These are exciting times for the collection, conservation, evaluation, and use of the many species of crop wild relatives. With regular access to this valuable germplasm in genebanks around the world, and data on how they can be hybridised, and with the additional information about plant genomes, then plant breeders can begin to use these species more strategically, even using GM approaches. However, the cultivation of GM crops is banned in many countries including the countries of the European Union (one of the biggest mistakes the European Union has collectively made), even though these GM technologies can significantly reduce the time and effort required to transfer useful traits from one species into another.

Scientists have many tools in the plant breeding toolbox. It all starts with a seed, collected from nature, studied in the laboratory, and conserved in genebanks. There’s hope yet.

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

[1] Eukaryotic species are defined as organisms whose cells have a nucleus enclosed within membranes, unlike prokaryotes, which are unicellular organisms that lack a membrane-bound nucleus, mitochondria or any other membrane-bound organelle (Bacteria and Archaea).

[2] McNally, KL. 2014. Exploring ‘omics’ of genetic resources to mitigate the effects of climate change. In: M Jackson, B Ford-Lloyd and M Parry (eds.) Plant Genetic Resources and Climate Change. CABI climate change series 4, CABI Wallingford.

[3] See Hawkes, JG (ed.) 1968. Chemotaxonomy and Serotaxonomy. Systematics Association and Academic Press, London. pp. 299.

[4] Hawkes published several immunological studies in the mid- to late 60s on North American and Mexican species of potato, with Richard Lester, one of his PhD students (and later Lecturer in the Department of Plant Biology at Birmingham).

[5] 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. PDF

[6] 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. PDF

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

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.


 

What’s wrong with ‘a bowl of alphabet soup’?

A rice farmer in northern Laos with her family

CGIAR? CG? CeeGee? Or should that be CIGAR?

The CGIAR is, it seems, a mystery to almost the entire world population, even those billions whose survival depends on the outputs of CGIAR-funded agricultural research. Recently, philanthropist Bill Gates wrote in his blog that . . . you’ve probably never heard of CGIAR, but they are essential to feeding our future. Fair comment.

Originally known as the Consultative Group on International Agricultural Research but more commonly just CGIAR today, it is the world’s largest global agricultural innovation network.

Founded in 1971, under the auspices of the World Bank, to coordinate international agricultural research efforts aimed at reducing poverty and achieving food security in developing countries, the network today supports 15 independent agricultural research institutes or centers. CGIAR brings evidence to policy makers, innovation to partners, and new tools to harness the economic, environmental and nutritional power of agriculture.

The centers carry out research on the world’s most import food crops (such as wheat, maize, and rice among many others), water and biodiversity management, livestock and fish, tree and forest systems, the dynamics of the world’s most challenging agricultural ecosystems, and food and agricultural policy.

Their research agendas contribute significantly towards the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals. And, of course, much of the research today is directed towards combating the threat (and challenges) of a changing climate that will affect agricultural productivity in most parts of the world in decades to come. In his blog piece, Gates rightly highlights the important climate-related research ongoing at two centers in Mexico and Nigeria, the International Maize and Wheat Improvement Center (CIMMYT) and International Institute for Tropical Agriculture (IITA), respectively. There’s more going on in the other centers coordinated through a cross-center research program.

Many billions of dollars have been invested in international agricultural research over the past 50 years or so. But the economic return through increased productivity has been many billions of dollars more.

But we shouldn’t just look at the economic benefits, important as they are. Millions upon millions of people have been taken out of poverty, and despite a worrying reversal of the favorable downward trend of food insecurity (due to economic slowdowns and downturns around the globe, as outlined in a recent report from several international agencies), more people benefit today from access to better crop varieties or improved practices. Many farmers can now afford to provide education opportunities for their children which they were unable to do without access to new technologies.

The centers supported through CGIAR are the key international players for conservation of genetic diversity found in farmer varieties and wild species of crop relatives. This genetic material or germplasm is safely stored in the genebanks at eleven of the centers. More importantly, this germplasm is being studied and used to breed better-adapted varieties.


When CGIAR was founded in 1971 there were already four centers, which were ‘adopted’ for funding support. The International Rice Research Institute, IRRI, based in the Philippines, is the oldest, founded in 1959 [1] and about to celebrate its Diamond Jubilee later this year.

Then came the Mexico-based CIMMYT in 1966 (although its antecedents stretch back to 1943 and a Rockefeller Foundation-funded program in Mexico), followed in 1967 by the International Center for Tropical Agriculture, CIAT, in Colombia and IITA, in Nigeria. Others followed over the next decade or so, but the number has fluctuated as centers merged, or even closed down.

I worked at two of these centers over a period of 27 years, as a junior/senior scientist in Peru and Central America at the International Potato Center or CIP that was founded in 1971 [2]; and as a Head of Department, then Director, at IRRI.


IRRI, CIMMYT, CIAT, IITA. Just four of the research institute acronyms that seemingly roll off the tongue. Yet, these very acronyms seemingly conspire to confuse. Even Bill Gates seems overwhelmed by center branding, stating that with so many acronyms being bandied about that the  . . . uninitiated feel[ing] as if they’ve fallen into a bowl of alphabet soup.

In the early years, CGIAR was an informal association of donor agencies that agreed to coordinate their funding to support the small numbers of centers that at one stage in the 1990s was allowed to grow to about 18 centers. At least one center closure and some mergers have come about since. And the funding model has changed.

Towards the end of the 1990s there was a growing concern among the donors of the centers—the members of CGIAR (centers are not members per se)—that there was too much duplication among centers in terms of their research programs, that their relationships with research programs in developing countries was burdensome for some of those programs, and that donor interests were not being met. Twenty years on, and despite changes to the funding model whereby donors have much more control over research projects in the centers, and the development of cross-center programs (with all the transactions paraphernalia that comes with these, such as meetings across continents, performance targets, and the added costs of just doing business), the profile of CGIAR remains weak (if we accept Bill Gates’ line of argument).

Why can that be, despite the intensive efforts to remedy this situation. In 1998 the centers supported by the CGIAR created Future Harvest as a charitable and educational organization designed to advance the debate on how to feed the world’s growing population without destroying the environment and to catalyze action for a world with less poverty, a healthier human family, well-nourished children, and a better environment.

It was a doomed rebranding initiative from the outset, yet survived several years. Centers were branded as members of the Alliance of Future Harvest Centers, a branding that has all but disappeared. It’s almost impossible to find any reference to Future Harvest on the web, and I only came across one logo on the inside of one publication. One of the reasons why Future Harvest failed is that while the concept was probably fine for the English-speaking world, it found no counterpart in Chinese, Hindi, Bahasa Indonesia, Swahili, or whatever. Future Harvest? What does that mean?

But it started, in my opinion, from a lack of understanding (misunderstanding, perhaps) of the power of branding of the individual centers. CGIAR (Future Harvest) is the sum of its parts, the independent centers that actually do the research. IRRI is a more powerful, and known, brand in Asia in particular [3]. The same goes for CIMMYT in Mexico, India, and Pakistan, and for the other centers where they operate.

Yes, the initiatives to permit centers to align their agendas and work more closely are worthwhile. But at the outset, the funding model was such that centers found themselves having to bid to become members of the new system programs, just to survive. Not a good reason for inter-center collaboration.

I have no problem with Gates’ bowl of alphabet soup. Fifteen acronyms (that you can actually pronounce) is a small price for strong branding, as long as full names are explained as well. This situation is no different from what you can find in any country. Just take the UK: NIAB (National Institute of Agricultural Botany in Cambridge); JIC (John Innes Centre in Norwich); or JHI (James Hutton Institute, in Dundee and Aberdeen). No-one seems perturbed recognizing these prestigious institutions either by their acronym or name. Why should there be any difficulty for the centers supported by CGIAR?

In response to Gates’ blog post, one tweeter (who had worked at one of the centers, CIMMYT I believe) stated that this ‘confusion’ was a sound justification for merging centers into one institute. I couldn’t disagree more. The strength of CGIAR lies in its diversity. Centers are strategically located around the world. Institutional (and national staff) cultures and set ups are very different. Doing business over time zones is problematical.

Merging organizations is never easy. One ‘partner’ inevitably loses out to another (take the Delta-NWA merger; who now remembers NWA?) One successful merger among CGIAR centers led to the creation of the International Livestock Research Institute or ILRI (bringing together the International Laboratory for Research on Animal Diseases in Nairobi, and the International Livestock Centre for Africa in Addis Ababa). Not all mergers or alliances prosper however. Closer links between IRRI and CIMMYT in the in the early 2000s came to nothing despite best efforts, and having two Board of Trustees members common to both. It remains to be seen how closer links between Bioversity International in Rome and CIAT, or the World Agroforestry Centre in Nairobi and the Center for International Forestry Research, or CIFOR in Bogor, Indonesia, pan out.

As you can see I’m a believer in the power, and identity, of the centers. After all, that’s where the research is planned strategically, where the scientists reside, and where they do their work. Branding is important and can make all the difference for delivering the right message.

Let’s celebrate how CGIAR has supported international agricultural research for almost five decades and continues to provide the framework for that to continue. Yes, the world needs to know and understand the importance of CGIAR and what it stands for. Equally, I would argue, let’s celebrate the work of IRRI, CIMMYT, IITA, CIAT, CIP, IFPRI, Bioversity International, ICARDA, IWMI, ILRI, World Agroforestry, Worldfish, CIFOR, ICRISAT, and Africa Rice.


[1] A Memorandum of Understanding was signed in December 1959 between the Government of the Philippines and the Rockefeller and Ford Foundations to establish IRRI. The Board of Trustees met in April 1960 to approve the institute’s constitution and by-laws. Thus, IRRI has two ‘birthdays’. The 50th anniversary was celebrated on 9 December 2009 and 14th April 2010.

[2] I was originally due to join CIP in September 1971, when I completed my MSc, and the CIP Director General, Richard Sawyer, had approached the forerunner of the UK’s Department for International Development for funding to support my assignment in Peru. But the UK was at that very moment deciding whether to fund CIP bilaterally or join CGIAR and fund the center’s work that way. My departure for Peru was delayed for 15 months.

[3] In about 2004, I was invited to a meeting on biotechnology and intellectual property rights in Malaysia, near Kuala Lumpur. My flight from Manila arrived in KL around 11 pm, and I had to take a taxi to the resort where the meeting was being held, about 35 km or so. I don’t remember if a taxi had been sent for me, or I just took the next one in the rank outside the terminal building exit. On the journey, the driver started asking me a few questions, and when I told him I worked in agriculture in the Philippines, he replied: ‘I guess you must work at IRRI’ or words to that effect. He knew all about IRRI. Notwithstanding he had once been a driver for Malaysia’s Minister of Agriculture, he was indeed very knowledgeable about rice and IRRI’s role. I was more than surprised.

 

Exploring the southern Lincolnshire Wolds and Cambridgeshire Fens*

Last week, Steph and I spent three days exploring five National Trust and English Heritage properties in Lincolnshire and Cambridgeshire. This is not an area with which we are familiar at all. We spent the first night on the coast at Skegness, and the second in the Georgian town of Wisbech.

It was a round trip of just under 360 miles from our home in Bromsgrove, taking in nine counties: Worcestershire, West Midlands, Warwickshire, Leicestershire, Nottinghamshire, Lincolnshire, Cambridgeshire, Norfolk (for about three minutes), and Rutland.

Our first stop was Tattershall Castle in Lincolnshire. There has been a fortified residence on this site since the mid thirteenth century, but it wasn’t until two centuries later that the remarkable brick tower was built. This is quite unusual for any castle, and Lord Cromwell is believed to have seen such buildings during his sojourns in France.

The tower and part of a stable block are all that remain today, although the position of other towers and a curtain wall can be seen. The whole is surrounded by a double moat.

Like so many other castles (see my blogs about Goodrich Castle in Gloucestershire, Corfe Castle in Dorset, and Kenilworth in Warwickshire) Tattershall was partially demolished (or slighted) during the Civil Wars between 1642 and 1651.

And over the subsequent centuries it slipped into decay. Until the 1920s when a remarkable man, Viscount Curzon of Kedleston (near Derby) bought Tattershall Castle with the aim of restoring it to some of its former glory, the magnificent tower that we see today.

The castle was then gifted to the National Trust in whose capable hands it has since been managed.

There is access to the roof (and the various chambers on the second and third floors) via a beautiful spiral stone staircase, quite wide by the normal standard of such staircases. But what makes this one so special is the carved handrail from single blocks of stone. And on some, among all the other centuries-old graffitti, are the signatures of some of the stonemasons.

Do take a look at this album of photos of Tattershall Castle.

Just a mile or so southeast of the castle is RAF Coningsby, very much in evidence because it’s a base for the RAF’s Typhoon aircraft, and a training station for Typhoon pilots. So the noise from these aircraft is more or less constant. However, RAF Coningsby is also the base for the Battle of Britain Memorial Flight, and just as we reached the car park on leaving Tattershall, we were treated to the sight of a Lancaster bomber (the iconic stalwart of the Second World War Bomber Command) passing overhead, having just taken off from the airfield, just like in the video below. At first, it was hidden behind some trees, but from the roar of its engines I knew it was something special. Then it came into view while banking away to the east.

Just 20 miles further east lies Gunby Hall, a William and Mary townhouse masquerading as a country house, and built in 1700. The architect is not known.

It was built by Sir William Massingberd (the Massingberds were an old Lincolnshire family) and was home to generations of Massingberds until the 1960s. You can read an interesting potted history of the family here.

Gunby Hall, and almost all its contents accumulated by the Massingberds over 250 years were gifted to the National Trust in 1944. Lady Diana Montgomery-Massingberd (daughter of campaigner Emily Langton Massingberd) was the last family member to reside at Gunby, and after her death in 1963, tenants moved in until 2012 when the National Trust took over full management of the house, gardens and estate.

Gunby is remarkable for two things. During the Second World War, the house was in great danger of being demolished by the Air Ministry because the runway at nearby (but now closed) RAF Spilsby had to be extended to accommodate the heavy bombers that would operate from there. But Sir Archibald Montgomery-Massingberd (husband of Lady Diana) was not a man without influence. He had risen to the rank of Field Marshal, and had served as Chief of the Imperial General Staff between 1933 and 1936. After he wrote to the king, George V, the location of the runway was changed, and Gunby saved.

It was then decided to gift the property and contents to the National Trust. So what we see in the house today is all original (nothing has been brought in from other properties or museums).

Sir Archibald Montgomery-Massingberd started life a simply Archibald Montgomery, but changed his name by deed poll to Montgomery-Massingberd on his marriage to Diana. It was a condition of the inheritance of the estate that the name Massingberd was perpetuated. Both he and Diana are buried in the nearby St Peter’s Church on the edge of the gardens.

Although not extensive, Steph and I thought that the gardens at Gunby were among the finest we have seen at any National Trust property. Yes, we visited in mid-summer when the gardens were at their finest perhaps, but the layout and attention to detail from the gardeners was outstanding. Overall the National Trust volunteers were knowledgeable and very friendly. All in all, it was a delightful visit.

You can see more photos here.

On the second day, we headed west from our overnight stay in Skegness on the coast (not somewhere I really want to visit again), passing by the entrance to Gunby Hall, en route to Bolingbroke Castle, a ruined castle owned by English Heritage, and birthplace of King Henry IV in 1367, founder of the Lancaster Plantagenets.

There’s not really too much to see of the castle except the foundations of the various towers and curtain wall. Nevertheless, a visit to Bolingbroke Castle is fascinating because English Heritage has placed so many interesting information boards around the site explaining the various constructions, and providing artist impressions of what the castle must have looked like.

So the castle footprint is really quite extensive, surrounded by a moat (now just a swampy ditch) that you can walk around, inside and out, taking in just how the castle was built.

A local sandstone, rather soft and crumbly, was used and couldn’t have withstood a prolonged siege. Interspersed in the walls, now revealed by deep holes but still in situ elsewhere, are blocks of hard limestone that were perhaps used for ornamentation as well as giving the walls additional strength. The castle was slighted in the Civil Wars of the 1640s.

The complete set of Bolingbroke photos can be viewed here.

Heading south to Wisbech, our aim was Peckover House and Garden, occupied from the 1770s until the late 1940s by the Peckover family of Quakers and bankers.

Peckover House is a detached Georgian mansion, among a terrace of elegant houses on North Brink, the north bank of the tidal River Nene, and facing a counterpart terrace on South Brink, where social reformer Octavia Hill, one of the founders of the National Trust, was born in 1838.

Standing in front of Peckover House, it’s hard to believe that there is a two acre garden behind. Among the features there is a cats’ graveyard of many of the feline friends that have called Peckover home.

Inside the house, I was reminded (though on a much smaller scale) of Florence Court in Northern Ireland that we visited in 2017. The hall and stairs are a delicate duck-egg blue, and there and in many of the rooms there is exquisite plasterwork. Above the doorways downstairs are fine broken pediments.

The most celebrated of the family was Alexander (born in 1830) who traveled extensively and built an impressive collection of books and paintings. He was Lord Lieutenant of Cambridgeshire, and was elevated to a peerage in 1907.

He bought one of his books, a 12th century psalter, in about 1920 for £200 or so. Now on loan from Burnley library and displayed in Alexander’s library, the book has been insured for £1,200,000!

Check out more photos of Peckover House and garden.

Our final stop, on the way home on the third day, was Woolsthorpe Manor, birthplace of Sir Isaac Newton, President of the Royal Society, who was born on Christmas Day in 1642 three months after his father, also named Isaac, had passed away.

This is the second home of a famous scientist we have visited in the past couple of months, the first being Down House in Kent, home of Charles Darwin. Woolsthorpe has become a pilgrimage destination for many renowned scientists, including Albert Einstein and Stephen Hawking who are shown in some of the exhibits.

Woolsthorpe is not a large property, comprising a limestone house and outbuildings. It has the most wonderful tiled roof.

It came into the Newton family as part of the dowry of Isaac Sr.’s marriage to Hannah Ayscough. Keeping sheep for wool production was the principal occupation of the family.

Isaac Newton won a place at Trinity College, Cambridge but had to escape back to Woolsthorpe during an outbreak of the plague in 1665 and 1666. He thrived and the 18 months he spent at Woolsthorpe were among his most productive.

Open to the public on the upper floor, Newton’s study-bedroom displays his work on light that he conducted there.


And from the window is a view over the orchard and the famous Flower of Kent apple tree that inspired his views on gravitation.

On the ground floor, in the parlour are two portraits of Newton, one of him in later life without his characteristic wig, and, high above the fireplace, his death mask.

Also there are early copies (in Latin and English) of his principal scientific work, the Principia Mathematica, first published in 1687.

There’s a full album of photos here.

And, with the 50th anniversary of Apollo 11 and the first landing on the Moon on 20 July 1969, there was a display of NASA exhibits and how Newton’s work all those centuries ago provided the mathematical basis for planning a journey into space. The National Trust has also opened an excellent interactive science display based on Newton’s work that would keep any child occupied for hours. I’m publishing this post on the anniversary of Apollo 11’s blast off from Cape Kennedy, now Cape Canaveral once again.

All in all, we enjoyed three excellent days visiting five properties. Despite the weather forecast before we set out, we only had a few minutes rain (when we arrived at Bolingbroke Castle). At each of the four National Trust properties the volunteer staff were so friendly and helpful, full of details that they were so willing to share. If you ever get a chance, do take a couple of days to visit these eastern England jewels.

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* The Lincolnshire Wolds are a range of hills, comprised of chalk, limestone, and sandstone. The Fens are drained marshlands and a very important agricultural region.

Biddulph Grange – a masterpiece of Victorian garden design

Steph and I became members of the National Trust in 2011. Since then, we have enjoyed visiting more than 100 properties in England, Wales, and Northern Ireland, and a handful owned by the National Trust for Scotland.

One of the first properties we visited in 2011 was Biddulph Grange Garden, between Biddulph (in North Staffordshire) and Congleton (where I was born) in southeast Cheshire. And just over a week ago, we returned for a second visit.

My family had a long connection with Biddulph Grange, way before it was taken over by the National Trust in 1988. Before then, Biddulph Grange was an orthopaedic hospital, founded by Lancashire County Council in 1928 as a hospital ‘for the crippled children of East Lancashire’.

After the Second World War, my father, Fred Jackson, joined the Congleton Chronicle newspaper as a staff photographer. His work took him around the area, within a 10 mile radius I guess of Congleton, taking photos of local events and happenings for publication in the newspaper.

Every Christmas morning he would take photos of Santa visiting all the children on the wards at Biddulph Grange. Even after our family moved to Leek in 1956, Dad (accompanied by Mum) continued to visit Biddulph Grange at Christmas. I remember visiting on many occasions, and meeting the Matron (right), but I don’t remember her name.

During our 2011 visit, there was an album of old photos taken during the hospital years, and I believe many of them had been taken by Dad over the years. There was even a photo from one of the Nurses’ Balls, that Mum and Dad would attend each year (they loved ballroom dancing), and I found Mum among the large group of ball-goers.

The National Trust now looks after the Garden, while the house has been converted to private residential apartments. By the 1980s the garden had suffered from decades of neglect during the hospital years. Now the Trust has brought the garden back to its former glory, as envisaged by the couple who designed and built the garden in the mid-nineteenth century, James and Maria Bateman.

James Bateman was a wealthy landowner (and lay preacher) who bought an old rectory at Biddulph (he moved there from nearby Knypersley Hall) in the 1840s, and set about expanding it to the house we see today. Bateman and his wife were passionate gardeners. He was a keen horticulturalist, and collector of plants from around the world.

Assisted by Edward William Cooke, the Batemans built what has become a world-famous garden. Yet the Batemans did not reside at Biddulph for more than a couple of decades. It never ceases to amaze me how landscapers and gardeners in the 18th and 19th centuries spent all their energies creating gardens they would never come to appreciate in all the glory that we can enjoy today.

Bateman and Cooke’s garden takes you around the world—China, Egypt, and Italy, among others—but the garden is divided into areas and themes. Around every corner there’s something different to see and experience, glens to weave through, tunnels to duck into, and tree-lined walks (lime and Wellingtonia) to add to the broad landscape experience.

The resurrected Dahlia Walk is a real delight in late summer. During the hospital years it had been filled in, and once the National Trust had command of the Garden, it had to be excavated almost archaeologically to reveal its former glory. It’s certainly one of the highlights of the Garden, as are the various parterres below the house.

Here is just a small sample of photos of some areas of the garden which show the garden at two different seasons. Do take a look at this photo album for many more photos.

Another interesting feature is Bateman’s Geological Gallery, now refurbished by the National Trust.


 

Turbocharging rice photosynthesis – the vision and legacy of John Sheehy, a brilliant scientist

Yesterday, I received the sad news that my dear friend and former colleague at the International Rice Research Institute (IRRI), John Sheehy, had passed away on 7 June after battling Parkinson’s Disease and Multiple System Atrophy (MSA) for several years. He was just 76.

I first met John in 1995, when he applied for the position of Systems Modeller at IRRI. I was Chair of the Search Committee. John came to IRRI after a successful career at the Grassland Research Institute (GRI) in Hurley, Berkshire, until it closed in 1992. His groundbreaking (and award-winning) work at GRI on nodulation, gaseous diffusion, and nitrogen fixation in grassland legumes, and other aspects of crop physiology focused on yield potential.

I knew the first time I spoke with John he was someone who would bring a very different scientific perspective to IRRI’s research. And that’s just what he did. He wasn’t some fresh-faced graduate or postdoc expected to toe the line in terms of rice science orthodoxy, so to speak. Always polite, he often challenged the perspectives and approaches of some IRRI old timers who couldn’t (or wouldn’t) appreciate John’s breadth of quantitative expertise. He had graduated with a BSc degree in Physics, completed an MSc in Electronics, and then studied for his PhD in ecophysiology under Professor John Cooper, CBE FRS at the Welsh Plant Breeding Station in Aberystwyth.

In coming to IRRI, he led research on and supported breeding the so-called New Plant Type (NPT) that was expected to push the yield barrier in rice.

Setting up the Applied Photosynthesis and Systems Modeling Laboratory, John came to the conclusion that a completely new approach was needed if rice yields were to be increased significantly. That’s because photosynthesis in rice (known as C3 photosynthesis) is inefficient compared to the system (C4) in other cereals like maize. John began to develop ideas to turbocharge photosynthesis by introducing ‘C4’ traits into rice, thereby aiming to increase photosynthetic efficiency by 50%, as well as improve nitrogen use efficiency, and double water use efficiency.

Rather than me trying to explain the rationale for this vision, why not listen to John explaining the need for a C4 rice.

John appreciated that IRRI could not realize this dream of a C4 rice alone. So he set about persuading, and bringing together, a group of many of the best scientists worldwide in a C4 Rice Project, that is partly funded by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. The continuing Project is an important part of John’s scientific legacy.

It is now coordinated by Professor Jane Langdale, CBE FRS at the University of Oxford.

At the time of his death, and after 20 years of research, C4 rice is not yet a reality, but significant progress has been made.


John’s scientific output was prodigious, and his many publications appeared in some of the best rated journals in his field, like Field Crops Research for example, a reflection of his research stature at IRRI (and before he joined IRRI). You can check his publications on Google Scholar.

He also waded enthusiastically into the controversy over the System of Rice Intensification or SRI, questioning—based on solid quantitative analysis of yield potential in rice—the yield claims of SRI adherents.


John retired in 2009 and returned to the UK. Before leaving IRRI, he met with Gene Hettel (former Head of IRRI’s Communication and Publications Services, and ‘IRRI Historian’) to record his thoughts on rice science and the challenges that IRRI would face.


In 2012, John was recognized in the New Year Honours (see page N.24) with an OBE for services to agricultural research and development, which was conferred during an investiture at Buckingham Palace on 14 February.

John receiving his OBE from HRH The Prince of Wales (L), and after the ceremony with wife Gaynor (L), and daughters Isabel (L) and Rhiannon (R).

In July 2014, John was honoured as a Fellow of his alma mater, Aberystwyth University.


In 2011, Steph and I joined John and Gaynor’s many friends and relatives to celebrate their 40th wedding anniversary.

L-R: Rhiannon, Gaynor, John, and Isabel

While at IRRI, John had taken enthusiastically to golf, and could be seen almost every weekend out on the golf course south of Los Baños where he had become a member. On his retirement to the UK, he was unfortunately unable to continue with this passion, due to bouts of poor health.

After I retired in 2010 back to the UK, John and I kept in touch regularly by email, on the phone, or SMS, when either Wales or Ireland were doing well at rugby, especially in the Six Nations championship. He had divided loyalties, born in Wales of Irish ancestry.

The last time I saw John was in July 2017, when Steph and I spent the weekend with him and Gaynor in Marlow, and met up with other IRRI friends, Graham and Sue McLaren (who now reside in Canada),

L-R: Gaynor, Graham, Sue, Steph, John, and me.

It was also an opportunity for John and me to swap OBE investiture reminiscences. I had also been made an OBE in the same New Year Honours as John, but attended an investiture two weeks later on 29 February.


John was a far better scientist than I could ever aspire to be. I always sought his advice on science issues. In return, he asked my advice about how to manoeuvre through institute politics and management to influence his research agenda, especially after I had moved upstairs, so to speak, to join IRRI’s senior management team.

But what I remember most about John was his cracking, but rather dry, sense of humor. His generosity of spirit. He was an excellent host. Many’s the dinner or BBQ Steph and I enjoyed with John, at his house or ours.

Christmas Day 2006 Chez Sheehy. L-R: John, Sue McLaren, Steph, Catherine McLaren, me, Gaynor, Alex McLaren, and Graham McLaren.

John, you will be sadly missed. Rest in Peace!


This obituary (written by Gene Hettel) was published on the IRRI website.

And this obituary (written by me) appeared in The Guardian on 5