The Story of the First Fast Plants(TM)

Most fairy tales begin with the words, "Once upon a time in a faraway land......"

Sometimes, though, even real stories, begin this way.

The story of the Fast Plants(TM) ancestors begins many, many years ago in the faraway kingdom of Nepal. High up on a rugged mountainside of the Himalayas, a farmer walked out to check his newly planted field of barley.

It was late in the spring. The snow had recently melted and the ground was becoming warm again. The barley grass he had planted a week ago would grow and provide grain for cereal and for the fried bread, called japati, that his wife made. The farmer was intending to just check the field as farmers do, but he didn't expect to see any barley plants yet.

Imagine his surprise when he spotted patches of weedy looking brassica plants, growing sturdily in the early spring sunlight. These "weeds" must have sprouted very fast. The farmer thought a bit. It had been a long winter and a long time since his family had had any fresh vegetables to eat. It would also be three months before the barley he had just planted could be harvested. So instead of pulling up the weedy plants and throwing them away, he took some home for a salad for the family's supper.

In a few days, the farmer went back to his field. By this time, the little plants were flowering. The bright yellow flowers looked like sunshine on the mountainside. Each time, the farmer took a few plants for his family to eat. The remaining plants attracted many hungry honeybees and soon produced pods with plump seeds. The farmer's wife pressed some of the seeds for oil that she could use in cooking. The farmer wisely kept the rest of the seeds to plant the following year.

The next spring he scattered his field with two kinds of seeds, the brassicas and the barley. Both of the crops grew fairly quickly, but the weedy brassica plants came up first and were already flowering while the barley was still spreading its shoots across the ground. The farmer harvested the brassicas before the barley was tall enough to shade them from the sun. He was able to produce two crops on one piece of land, providing enough food for his family and for the farm animals, the yaks.

Year after year, the farmer saved and replanted some of the brassica seeds. The little weedy brassica was a relatively "primitive" plant that required no special fertilizer and was well-adapted to survive there on the mountainside.

Time passed. Soon the farmer's grandchildren were farming the same crops on the terraced mountain field. And so it continued, generation after generation.

Then one day early in this century, a plant explorer from the other side of the world visited the mountainside farm in Nepal. Discovering the field of weedy little plants, she recognized them as a kind of brassica. She was familiar with the whole family of plants called brassicas. Many brassicas are common vegetables such as broccoli and various cabbages. Other brassicas are mustard and canola oil plants.

Since the little brassicas on the Nepalese farm had been grown for hundreds of years in the same location, they represented a unique plant stock. They could be called a "land race" and would be genetically different from other brassica plants anywhere. The plant explorer knew the importance of preserving land races of plants. She collected some of the seed of this brassica land race to take home to America. The seed was stored and saved in the United States Department of Agriculture's brassica seed collection at Iowa State University in Ames.

The seed brought by the plant explorer to the seed storage collection in Iowa stayed there for a long time. No one seemed particularly interested in it. And then, a few years ago, a plant scientist at the University of Wisconsin was seeking new genetic material for his research. This research involved trying to breed vegetable brassicas like cabbage, broccoli and turnips so that they wouldn't get particular diseases. These diseases had names like "black leg," "soft rot," and "yellows." Scientists call plants that don't become diseased with fungi, bacteria or viruses "disease resistant."

The scientist wrote to the curator of the brassica seed collection in Iowa and asked for samples of different kinds of seed of brassica land races. When they arrived, he planted them outside in a field called a research plot. There, in the middle of the research plot, appeared the little, weedy brassica from the mountainside of Nepal. This plant was about to connect the efforts of the observant farmer of long ago and the modern day research scientist.

The scientist noticed the little brassica right away because it flowered much more quickly than any of the other brassicas. What value could aweedy little brassica be to his research? Standing there in the field, ideas began to race through his mind. The plant didn't look like much, but it was very fast to flower. Normally, crossbreeding one cabbage with another takes about a year, so the results of his research were slow in coming. What if he could use this plant to develop a really fast flowering plant that could be used to test for disease resistance?

Like the farmer, the scientist decided to save the seed. He would grow the weedy brassica and its progeny (children) under constant light and with only a small amount of soil, encouraging them to reproduce faster and faster. He would choose those plants that were shortest and sturdiest, that flowered the fastest, and that produced the most seed. Then he would have a "model plant" that he could use to crossbreed with disease-resistant brassicas. Eventually he would transfer the disease resistance into his cabbages.

This is exactly what has been happening. The scientist called his model plants "Fast Plants(TM)." And thus, the little weedy brassica from Nepal was the great, great . . . . grandmother of the Fast Plants(TM). Today scientists, students and teachers are all working with Fast Plants(TM). They are studying how plants grow and how they produce new generations of plants.

Some students will go on to become plant geneticists, molecular biologists and plant breeders, and they will write the next chapter in the story of the Fast Plants(TM). How do you think it will end?

Story by Coe Williams


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