Space Genie

My predecessor David Burpee opined toward the end of his life that he regretted only that he would not live to breed the plants of other planets with earth’s. Odd, but then he was a genius born in 1893 who was interviewing a newspaper reporter in the late 60s, still a hot time in the space race, when many folks in the US were confident that, eventually, extraterrestrial life would be found. As I noted last year, ET, or perhaps just a field of intergalactic ferns, may still be found. However, I shall not live to fulfill Mr. Burpee’s dream, much as I might wish. His casual observation expressed a profound understanding of agricultural genetics. Unfortunately, he didn’t live to see the fabulous promise of somatic embryogenesis—whereby substantial time and cost are reduced to improve crop plants—but he would have approved.

Nevertheless, my dreams aren’t as fanciful. I look forward to new cultivars resulting from genetic engineering—not space travel. I’d prefer new varieties that add unknown colors to gardens. Taupes, mauves, salmons (more salmons!), corals and, of course, pinks. A luminous shade of clear pink, with no grey or blue in it, is as mystical as any color you could have. And with new light will come new intensities, both high and low. Perhaps we shall see truly black flowers soon.

Yellows and blues could use help too. There’s already a great range of yellows, with corresponding emotional evocations, from lovingly warm to cheerfully cool. Widen it from blazing hot to almost freezing. Also, blue is a treasure box of subtlety and moodiness. My favorite is midnight blue which combined with lemon yellow is unforgettable. Twenty years ago Harris had a delightful multiflora petunia series, now long gone, called ‘Ribbons’. The dark blue and white striped, with the yellow, were stunning in a confetti-like mixed bed. Picnic time or evening repose, never a dull moment with ‘Ribbons’.

I suppose I’ll settle in for the remainder of my life with my own Forrest Gump box of chocolates here on earth. Other planets just may be more boring than earth. Nice to dream of them and of other suns, other spectra and other eyes, but I won’t oversleep. “You snooze, you lose”, as we say in business.

However, within reach of my lifetime are quantum leaps in gene transfer, which will usher in more of “les choses belles et etrangeres”, greatly to be desired. (However, I remember folks getting so upset in the 90s about Dolly the sheep, and wondering “Why the fuss?”) Plant/animal hybrids, animal/plant hybrids, animal/animal hybrids, plant/plant hybrids. Tiny little trees, 50 foot tall lilies of the valley. A tomato named “Porky”. A cow that grows its own grass. (Indeed, it was only a few hundred years ago that melons were thought to be the source of New World wild sheep.) Some advantages would be clear—plants could move about when they needed, in severe drought, for instance. Also, they would easily avoid inbreeding depression by choosing mates from other forests, since botanical eyes would eventually appear. Here comes Mr. Green Genes, indeed.

On the animal side, we humans could make our own food too, from time to time, or organ-by-organ, photosynthesizing from special areas of our limbs or head, or else via internal metabolizing like roots and bulbs do. Not so much “getting and spending we lay waste our powers”. Maybe Wordsworth was thinking of those little lambs popping out of the exotic melons, instead of daydreaming as his eyes floated across the bucolic green fields.

This entry was posted on Monday, January 5th, 2009 at 10:02 pm and is filed under Original Posts. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. Both comments and pings are currently closed.
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36 Responses to “Space Genie”

  1. bob moore said:

    I understand and appreciate your love of color and plants, but shiver to think that we understand enough of our world to intersperse genes as we see fit. It just seems so very arrogant to think man can scramble genes when he doesn’t fully understand them.

  2. George said:

    Dear Bob:

    I was unclear. I meant that the progress would be safe and well-regulated, much as it is now, if not more so. Thanks for your excellent comment.

  3. KarenGarner said:

    I greatly enjoyed all of your comments. Differ on one point. If a planet has plants, it can never be boring. Have a good day. Karen

  4. George said:

    Dear Karen:

    Touche! I stand corrected. Thanks very much.

  5. Ken O'Dell said:

    Hello George; I smiled as I read about your thought of new creations from genetic engineering.
    I look though different eyes and see if only I could learn all about one new species of plants each day that in 60 years I would only know 21000 new plants and there would still be hundreds of thousands of species of plants on the planet that I never knew. That I never read about. That I never saw. Smile and be happy and keep writing.

  6. George said:

    Dear Ken:

    Thanks for your wise thoughts. We need no other planets. Mr. Burpee was merely fantasizing to the reporter. You could almost hear the pencil and notebook drop to the floor. I forgot this earthly dimension you point out, as I got carried away in my reverie. Great input.

  7. Frances Passik said:

    I love to read the Heronswood Voice. George Ball is intelligent in his teachings and obviously knows whereof he speaks. Please continue sending me his writings! Thank you.

  8. George said:

    Dear Frances:

    You are very kind.

    Thank you.

  9. Mary said:

    yikes, I hardly know what to say with regard to your expounding on plant intergalactics, gene transfer, and humans creating food within or connected to our bodies. While in the future this could some how be a possibility, it scares me. Why? I believe that our Creator intended for us to multiply & replenish with our own kind, able to partake of the fruits of other kinds. I cannot imagine walking around with a cauliflower growing on my shoulder, or did I misunderstand you? I believe with your knowledge, you will be able to progress in the next life with greenhouses in magnificent geographic splendor, so that planting in the soil where you are will be more valuable & fulfilling than you can imagine at the is time. Concern yourself with what you might accomplish here. Your time in your next life will be well spent, utilizing what you learn here, and progressing even more with plants and helping others understand plants. I think this because I know your Creator knows you and exactly what you are learning. He will want for you what you want for yourself…also, he will want for you to share your knowledge that others might understand.

  10. George said:

    Dear Mary:

    Goodness, you have a great heart and soul. I’m speechless. Thank you for your thoughtfulness.

  11. TC said:

    Dr. Frankenstein thought he too could create life. Look what happened. Oh, never mind, that was just gothic fiction from the mind of an 18-year old kid.

    The Modern Prometheus is us.

  12. George said:

    Dear TC:

    Thanks for your feedback. I didn’t know Mary Shelly was so young! But wasn’t Dr. F using cadavers? I believe gene transfer is different. However, I’m no expert, so your point is well taken.

    Thanks again.

  13. Bery Engebretsen said:

    I also have a twinge of caution. Complex adaptive system study has taught us there are ALWAYS unintended outcomes when systems interact. It is true that nature does this all the time, but in the slow and regulated pace of evolution. And even there outcomes are not always good. An example being the increasing resistance of bacteria to antibiotics. Granted the color of our flowers may be a fairly benign workspace. But even there we get bad outcomes – beautiful color by very weak plants, or other aggressive traits that aren’t so hot….

  14. George said:

    Dear Bery:

    Thanks for your thoughtful feedback. It was my mistake to ignore these considerations. Safety and regulation are critical. Breeders tend to be acutely aware of undesirable traits. Yet we flower breeders covet red, for example. Customers want color in a big way. Thanks again.

  15. M.McGrath said:

    The more I learn about genetically modifying living organisms, the more I see wrong with it. A recent Austrian study shows that mice fed GM corn, suffered lower birthrates and lower birth weights than mice fed non-GM corn. It may seem like fun to play a shell game with plant genes, but you have no idea what long term harm you may be causing by doing that. We think we have all the answers. Ask women whose mothers took DES because it was the miracle drug of the day how smart that point of view was.

  16. George said:

    Dear M:

    Thanks for the comments. I meant to be playful, but you’re absolutely correct. No shell games are allowed in our labs! And I appreciate the info re Austrian study and DES. I’ll look into these subjects further. Substantive results are hard to come by these days. Don’t forget that much disease comes from starvation, poor diet and contaminated food. Agriculture strives to solve these problems. Thanks very much.

  17. E. Wm. Warren said:

    At the Amaryllis Study Group we teach techniques to make hippeastrum bloom 3 times in succession from April to August. We also teach a simple technique to bring garden planted hippeastrum back into bloom in the fall. All of this without getting into their (jeans) genes. As these have been Holy Grails among breeders for a century. I was gratified when an employee of a certain university called me a “snake oil salesman” recently.

    At my 3d yearly seminar December 2008 with the Garden Club of Jacksonville, FL for instance 60 some percent of my audience was using the fall bloom inducing technique and only one person had a difficulty which we were able to immediately rectify by going over the technique again. The biggest problem with simple techniques is people get excited hearing them and can’t listen to the details because their thoughts are anticipating.
    We still have plenty of interesting work outside the lab.

  18. George said:

    Dear E. Wm.

    Always welcome the voice of a professional. I used to breed Amaryllis, or I should say my old company did. Hours and hours in the field doing evaluations and bud counts. The trick was always to get them not to tip over on a coffee table, back in those days. You’ve made great progress. Thanks much.

  19. Francine Patterson said:

    “A tomato named “Porky” and a cow that grows it’s own grass.” Ah…life as we know it as gardeners! I do so enjoy Heronswood voice. And to compare to Burpee..oh my…what a wonderful world we live in. Happy gardening, Francine

  20. George said:

    Dear Francine:

    Thanks much for taking delight in my humor. God bless you and a happy 2009 to you.

  21. Sean said:

    We have interfered with evolution since we started using our minds for more than survival. The domestication of plants, and animals, has been a boon for Humans’. We can control desirable aspects and traits to suit our own needs by breeding out the undesirable traits. Before we start meddling with any genome, we should look to natures way of dealing with the flaws that we hold so dear. Perhaps the cure for Cancer is the the breeding of animals (including humans) capable of producing the appropriate reaction to environmental and physiological causes of…

  22. George said:

    Dear Sean:

    Thank you for your profound input. That’s where I was going, but with a bit of sport. Please keep in touch.

  23. Sandy said:

    Heronswood was entrancing when I visited this past summer and I love reading Heronswood Voice. But my, I miss the old comforting and wise photo.
    Thank you for all your thoughts.

  24. George said:

    Dear Sandy:

    I thank you most deeply. I can’t stand the new picture. It was taken by a professional, while the previous was a casual snap by a friend. Thanks for noticing the difference. We’re looking for improvements.

  25. Joan said:

    Blue and yellow are beautiful together. My favorite blue is the Himalayan poppy. I did get one to germinate and grow for 2 seasons here in Michigan, but it finally succumbed to the cold.

    Salmons and corals are beautiful too. And I agree, genetic engineering offers the promise of all sorts of wonderful things. When I taught Biology 25 years ago, I told my students that genetics would be the field of the future.

    I enjoyed your essay.

  26. George said:

    Dear Joan:

    Thanks. As a biology teacher, you know better than anyone what I’m getting at. Life holds no guarantees, but rather chances to increase and multiply. I mean to promote good things, but perhaps it wasn’t obvious. Meconopsis is very tricky. Thanks for the great feedback.

  27. beverly said:

    I find these notes (letters) very heart warming and personal. I have wondered about colors, species etc of God’s great creation and am inspired when I see others with the same love I share.

  28. George said:

    Dear Beverly,

    Thank you for your kind and encouraging note.

  29. Vivian said:

    Dear George,
    Thanks, although I haven’t commented before, I really enjoy reading your columns.

    I was inspired to comment this time because there already is a truly black flower that has been bred recently–the orchid Fredclarkeara After Dark “Nightmare Before Christmas” AM/AOS–there’s a picture at this link:
    It’s not hardy but does grow easily on a windowsill, and apparently is very difficult to photograph because it is so dark. So, one more neat thing that we have all lived to see!

  30. George said:

    Dear Vivian,

    Wow! Thanks for the black flower picture—it’s fantastic. Please send more goodies our way whenever you want. Thanks again.

  31. Scott Carlson said:

    Hi George,

    I wonder if Porky was one of the tomatoes in the movie “Attack Of The Killer Tomatoes”.

    Have Fun

  32. George said:

    Dear Scott,

    Thanks for your note.

    The very apple on which Adam and Eve dined was probably the result of extensive breeding, otherwise they might have remarked on its bitterness, sworn off apples for good, and changed the course of history.

    Today, in our much altered society, they might’ve opted for tofu burgers. In any case, thanks again. Please don’t flip out on account of my occasional flippancy.

  33. RAS said:

    I think mother nature has done a fantastic job and I see no need to mess with her products. I think we are looking for trouble when we think we can do things better

  34. George said:

    Dear RAS,

    Thanks for your note. One of the hazards of personal journalism is when it strays into humor or satire. As I venture into an absurdist vein, I should let readers know this. I would announce, I AM NOW VENTURING INTO AN ABSURDIST VEIN. A simple enough precaution.

    I never meant for the dictates of science to overtake human feeling or reason. I’m no mad scientist, whose vision of progress is others’ nasty nightmares. Far from it. I develop and sell flowers, herbs and vegetables. Henceforth, I shall concentrate on this, rather than getting accused of being weird, which is inevitable when a business leader courts controversy. Thank you again.

  35. Joyce Holzinger said:

    I love your writings, your passion for nature gives me so much pleasure and I’m always learning something new. Please don’t change your personalized format it sets you apart from any plant source. Thank You

  36. George said:

    Dear Joyce,

    Thanks for your kind words. I shall continue probing the darkness like a lobster, so to speak. However, I might focus slightly less touchy subjects. More the “feely” ones. Thanks again.

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