Plant breeders were engineering biology before it was cool

Recently I’ve become fascinated1 by crop breeding and plant genetics, after realizing that these are, in a sense, the oldest fields of biological engineering. Even though we’ve only been able to manipulate genetic circuits and metabolic pathways for a few decades, we’ve been influencing whole-organism traits through selective breeding for a whole lot longer. You could say that humans were engineering plants hundreds of years before we even knew there were such things as genes!

Of course, this all applies to animal breeding as well, but I think plant science is particularly relevant right now as an applied field. In biology, at least, I’m not sure there are more important advances than those being made in crop genetics, photosynthesis, and carbon/nitrogen fixation for allowing human society to continue in its current material form in a future without fossil fuels.

I’m also just curious about plant biology because I was never taught (or even exposed to) it during my formal training — this still surprises me. It is almost as if plant biology isn’t considered “regular” biology, especially at the “elite” research institution where I went for undergrad and PhD. There wasn’t a single plant biology course offered in my major of “chemical and physical biology” (despite the fact that plants are, in fact, very good at using chemistry and physics). The few courses on plants that were offered were in the department of evolutionary biology and ecology, which despite being wonderful fields in their own right, do not begin to cover all the interesting angles on plants. I sometimes feel like I didn’t study biology so much as “mammalian biology (with interesting anecdotes from yeast and bacteria)”.

Why are plants such a niche topic in biology? My guess is that it’s because the advances don’t help humans live longer, and the overwhelming focus of biology funding (and maybe of all science) in the US is health relevance. This in turn is probably because it generally feels more urgent to cure diseases now than to have enough food or fuel a few decades from now. Also, for basic research you might argue that any fundamental mechanisms conserved in a convenient microbe should be studied there. Nevertheless, it seems clear to me (and I’m sure has long been clear to everyone in the field) that topics like photosynthesis and stress responses of plants are broadly significant for both applied and basic science.

All this is to say that even though I’ll mostly try to write about topics I actually have some expertise on, I’m going to sprinkle in posts here and there about my plant-related dabblings. To start off, I’ll talk about what engineering better-tasting tomatoes teaches us about biological tradeoffs.

Notes

  1. So far this fascination mostly consists of reading random papers and Wikipedia, but I am about to start this book, which I’m very excited about.
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