Malicious pollen? Malicious genes?

Does this little lady look like a malicious gene carrier to you? Image of a European honey bee carrying pollen in a pollen basket back to the hive via Wikipedia.

In my last post, Co-existence isn’t easy, I discussed some ways that a conventional farmer might accidentally make life difficult for an organic farmer. Some people might not believe it, but gene flow aka “contamination” can happen regardless of organic status. Organic plants could even screw up genetically engineered plants if pollen goes where it isn’t intended.
One example is in plants that are genetically engineered to silence an unwanted protein. Peanuts or wheat could be (and have been – peanuts, wheat – though they are not yet on the market) engineered to eliminate allergenic proteins from those crops. Any genetic contamination from “regular” peanuts or wheat could be very problematic because it would re-introduce those allergenic proteins. Someone prone to hyperbole might even call those genes “malicious” because they would be turning an otherwise safe food into a dangerous food for those who are allergic.
Mandarin orange on the tree. Image by Wikipedia.

Another example, one that’s happening right now, is Mandarin oranges in California (thanks to Karl for bringing this up). No GMOs necessary – the case here is regular old seedless Mandarin oranges. Farmers growing seedless Mandarins can command a higher price for their produce than if they had seeds. However, any stray citrus pollen carried by bees onto the Mandarin flowers can cause seeds to be created in those tasty little fruits. Farmers who are the “victims” of the “malicious” stray pollen can be adversely affected financially.
According to Kim Flottum at the Daily Green, there’s a lot of competing interests here. Who are we going to root for? Seeded citrus farmers? Bee keepers? Seedless citrus farmers?
Do the seedless citrus farmers have a right to demand that the bee keepers knock it off, to the detriment of the bee keepers and seeded citrus and almond farmers? My gut reaction is no. The California legislature seemed to be leaning towards yes, at least in 2009 in their Chapter 3. Seedless Mandarin And Honeybee Coexistence Working Group Act (see non-legalese explanation by Serge Labesque of the Sonoma County Gazette). I haven’t been able to find the updated legislation. Can you?
In my current total lack of legal or regulatory experience I’m generally of the opinion that farmers who need special conditions to meet a voluntary goal should take special precautions to ensure they will meet that goal, within reason. And their neighbors have an obligation to not trespass on their neighbor’s property within reason which might include their pollen, and maybe includes their bees.
So, in an ideal situation, a seedless Mandarin farmer to-be would separate their intended seedless Mandarin trees from their neighbors by distance and with plants that aren’t attractive to bees (maybe even plants that are repulsive to bees if any exist). They’d communicate their goals to their neighbors who would respond by moving their beehives away from the property line. Would this always work? No. Would it sometimes end up in a lawsuit or at least in small claims court? Probably. I’ll leave it up to someone with more expertise to discuss who should pay damages and such.
The case of seedless Mandarin oranges has obvious parallels to other farming situations. For example, does an organic farmer have the right to demand that none of their neighbors for miles and miles grow any transgenic varieties to avoid having a handful of flowers pollinated with transgenic pollen which might cause them to loose a special Non-GMO certification (or a zero-tolerance Australian organic certification)? What about the rights of the other farmers to grow approved transgenic crops if they so choose?
Farming is complicated, never black and white. Can you think of other examples of “malicious” pollen or genes? I hope you’ll share!

Anastasia Bodnar

Written by Anastasia Bodnar

Anastasia Bodnar serves as the Policy Director of Biology Fortified, Inc. She is a science communicator and multidisciplinary risk analyst with a career in federal service. She has a PhD in plant genetics and sustainable agriculture from Iowa State University.

59 comments

  1. Interesting angle, so thanks for the post. Coincidentally (or not?) I’ve only just discovered the use of the GaS gene in corn (maize) to exclude foreign pollen, but from what I can tell this effort by organic and other growers to protect themselves from unwanted pollen doesn’t seem to be going anywhere.

  2. Just a thought…
    Let’s say for a second that you have a beekeeper who’s being a jerk and refuses to remove their hives away from an orchard. Undesired genes get in, the farmer sues the beekeeper.
    How, exactly does one prove what pollinated the crops and spread the gene in question?
    From where I’m sitting, I think the best they could do is show that X amount of crops are pollinated by insect Y and then go from there.
    Iunno…just a thought.

  3. Yeah, as for proving who did it it becomes very difficult. Imagine two people shooting identical guns at a third person. One bullet hits and kills them. Who is responsible? Suppose you cannot prove whose bullet actually shot the person, but you can make them either share the blame, or stick them with some sort of recklessness.
    For a beekeeper, I suppose they would go after nearby beekeepers collectively for the damages, and proportion it out on a per-hive basis. There would be no easy way to tell whose bees made seeds in someone’s crop, without carefully tracking them.
    But in defense of beekeepers, they have a grievance against the mandarin growers as well. Bees need forage, and the survival of some beekeeping operations may depend on getting flowers during that time of the year in California. They also have the price premium of orange blossom honey that they want.
    What I was telling Anastasia on the phone last night was, perhaps identity-protected crops should bear the largest share of the burden of protecting the identity of their crops. (Hey no stealing my idea!) Identity preservation is a new thing, and it is being imposed on the natural world in an area where it really doesn’t happen naturally.
    And I recently found a great non-GE example (with human health implications) of cross-pollination. Time to go on a little field trip.

  4. Identity preservation is at least as old as conventional breeding.
    The idea that a producer who makes special claims about a product bears the burden of meeting those claims is probably about that old as well.

  5. Malicious pollen? Hardly.
    But I know enough not to try to grow non-sweet corn anywhere near sweet corn, whether mine or my neighbors’, and to follow the recommendations for isolation of the various latest extra-sugary varieties. Unwanted pollen can contribute working genes for converting sugar to starch in the developing endosperm, reducing crop value even if the contamination is at 1% or below: the consumer will encounter an objectionably hard and starchy kernel for each trespassing pollen grain that gets to an ovule.
    This is similar to the Seedless Mandarin issue you note above, and to which I would add mention of the more complicated situation of Asian Persimmons, whether and when pollination is wanted (more than the absense/presence of seeds is affected).

  6. All these examples are about cases when the pollen reaching your crop makes a tangible phenotype difference, e.g. presence of an unwanted seed, or tough kernels, etc.
    But the reason we hear about pollen “contaminating” in the GMO discussion is a very different case. It’s about a “contamination” that doesn’t express as a phenotype trait that anyone cares about. It’s about a harm that is created only by the act of defining it as a harm. (A glyphosate resistance trait is not harm if the crop is not intended to be sprayed with glyphosate.)
    If Joe’s GMO sugar beets are a threat to a neighbor’s organic sugar beet crop, why is he not more concerned about his other neighbor’s table beets, for which a cross-pollination would bring in genes that dramatically affect the phenotype? The actual issue is not one of harm, but of creating and exploiting an issue of propaganda value.

  7. “If Joe’s GMO sugar beets are a threat to a neighbor’s organic sugar beet crop …” is an interesting scenario. You can Google all day long, and not find a producer of organic sugar beets. Anywhere.
    A valid concern might be outcrossing to chard, but farmers have had that bit figured out for years. The ‘GM sugar beet’ issue is completely fanciful.
    I’m surprised no-one has been jailed for perjury in the sugar beet cases.

  8. Raoul discusses another example in our book “Tomorrow’s Table”. On his organic farm, they were growing beautiful sunflowers to sell for bouquets at the farmers market. Unfortunately, the pollen from the organic crop was contaminating fields of conventional sunflowers that were being grown for seed. The pollen flow from the organic crop rendered the seed crop impure and therefor reduced the value of the seed crop.
    This is America so you would expect that the conventional farmer would sue the organic farmer.
    But no! The farmers talked to each other and came up with a solution. The conventional growers gave the organic grower some sterile sunflower seeds.
    Problem solved. The organic growers here in the Valley now grow sterile sunflowers for their bouquets.

  9. You’re right, GaS in maize and other cross incompatibility type traits don’t seem to be pursued by organic folks. Seems strange to me. There’s demands for 100% genetic purity yet they can’t be bothered to do anything about it? Things that make you go hmm…

  10. I don’t recall that example! Looks like it’s time for me to reread Tomorrow’s Table!
    What a great solution to the sunflower pollen problem. I wonder if the resulting bouquet flowers actually look better with more black in the flower center due to undeveloped seeds.

  11. I’m having a hard time understanding the Round Up ready sugar beet thing too. Assuming that organic sugar beet farms exist, the farmers can’t possibly have the total lack of understanding of beet biology that they claim to.

  12. You seem to be ignoring the fact that the unwanted henotype is present in the next generation. Hard kernels reflect that. For farmers growing a seed crop, as Pamela Ronald pointed out, or for farmers who routinely save their own seed, that’s a valid concern. So why are people so opposed to various kinds of “Terminator” technologies?

  13. Jeremy, I simply don’t understand your comment. How was I ignoring the fact that the unwanted phenotype can be inherited?
    In the case I singled out, sugar beets, there is absolutely zero effect of pollen on the current crop. The only effect is the inheritance of a trait in the next generation. And in the case of the GMO sugar beet the phenotype trait inheritable is the ability of the plant to tolerate a herbicide that the organic grower isn’t even going to use, so the only harm of that inheritance is the harm-by-definition that was artificially created.
    In the case of sugar beets, there’s the additional absurdity that the sugar created is a refined product that is molecularly identical whether the sugar beet was organic, GMO, or any other variety.

  14. Identity preservation as used in most of the discussion here is NOT nearly as old as conventional breeding. Identity preservation or IP (not to be confused with Itellectual Property IP…) became a marketing imperitive for non-GMO crops only with the advent of GMO crops.
    But I will agree with Eric that a producer who makes special claims about a product should bear the burden of meeting those claims. All this really begs the question of why special claims are made in the first place. Most frequently it comes down to the pursuit of premiums. If the premium is siginificant enough to warrant the additional effort required to obtain it then a rational agent will choose to pursue it.
    The quibble I have with Karl’s comment above is that identity preservation does occur in the natural world – but it doesn’t happen all the time.

  15. c_rader: I completely agree about contamination of this year’s crop of beets for refined sugar. Those objections ought to be thrown out as silly. But that is by no means the only case. Growers worried about glyphosate resistance in the offspring of their own farm-saved seeds have no reason to worry, as you say, if they have no intention of using glyphosate. And those constructs are already out there in the wild in crop wild relatives. Nevertheless, there are other instances where a contribution from unwanted pollen would be detrimental, as Anastasia said, and they aren’t all one-way.

  16. c_radar, I’d like to quibble with the notion that “harm-by-definition” is somehow less important than other types of harm. The line between phenotype and genotype gets fuzzy here exactly because of the artificially created situations in the marketplace. One can test a plant for the adventious presence of a GMO trait… and by testing for the genotype one is in essence assessing the phenotype. If the organic marketplace penalizes a grower for this phenotype then the harm is real regardless of the natural (or logical) aspects of the situation.

  17. Jeremy – c_rader acknowledges that in some cases pollen could cause actual, rather than perceived harm in terms of phenotype.
    Interestingly (at least I think!) while organic growers have no actual (although potential economic depending on the market) harm should some roundup-ready get into their crop by cross pollination there is the potential for conventional farmers who utilize a pre-planting glyphosate burn following a non-RR crop having issues of volunteer plants (say for instance if you planted RR soy following non-RR corn) which would be exacerbated by the presence of the transgene.
    Clem’s point is also a good one (below) – even if phenotypically there is no harm the farmer is perfectly justified in seeing harm if the market is such that they are penalized for the presence of a transgene – how justified they’d be in completely banning a practice that put them at risk is another thing – but juts because there is no phenotypic difference caused doesn’t put the farmers concerns any less so than if there is a phenotypic difference – if their bottom line is being effected then it is obviously a real concern – I’d argue it ceases being a real concern and becomes a propaganda issue elsewhere in the chain of wossnames (ie end consumers and end consumer scare groups who literally have nothing to lose in the case of transgene presence with no phenotypic differences)

  18. Clem, you miss my point.
    There is economic harm if a crop meant to be sold as “organic” contains a transgene. But the economic harm is created solely by defining it as harm.
    Too often I illustrate logical points by analogy, and here I go again.
    Suppose someone from a certain ethnic group wants to buy a house in my neighborhood. Most of us are without prejudice. But a few neighbors start a campaign vilifying that ethnic group and telling the rest of us that our new neighbor will cause property values to drop. They picket. Indeed, they are so adamant that they put their own homes up for sale and, as a result, property values do drop. I’ve described a case of harm-by-definition. It’s real harm, but it seems to me to be a fundamentally different harm from, say, the harm caused by a neighbor who is noisy, messy, etc.

  19. I believe it would be good for the folks running this site to do an article on the GMO feeding studies. My hunch is that this is where a lot of the cries for “purity” of seed comes from. It is a consumer demand based on a belief that GMOs cause food to be less healthy do to unwanted phenotypic effects. A large segment of the organic consumer market is paying price premiums for health reasons, such as avoidance of pesticide residue and nutritional density.
    Already the organic corn market is running with GMO seed contamination (though some are trying to recreate pure lines). Might be interesting to get the viewpoint of these folks too.

  20. c_radar – I guess I’m still missing something. I’m having a hard time appreciating the financial distinction between harm created solely by definition or harm caused by some other source. If both result in an agent suffering economically, how am I to be influenced by the difference?
    We can address each type of harm – and perhaps this is where its important – we might address the harm-by-definition by changing the definition, whereas harm from another cause is addressed by taking some other action?

  21. Well Clem, I guess the difference is not one of finances but one of deciding what is justice.
    In my analogy about the ethnic prejudice, the proposed way of avoiding the harm was to prevent the innocent new homeowner from moving into the neighborhood. I assume that you would agree that this would be wrong, even though it would indeed have prevented the harm. But if the new neighbor was despised because he was a gangster, a terrorist, or in some other way really awful, a solution based on keeping him away would not provoke the same feelings of injustice.

  22. Clem, c_rader,
    ‘Harm by definition’ when it comes to phenotypically irrelevant outcrossing to organic crops is only half of the odd picture. The other half is that the ‘harm’ to the organic farmers is self-inflicted. They themselves impose upon themselves the definition of organic farming which establishes the scope of their alleged victimhood. Neither law nor ethics supports the claim that others should be responsible for freely-chosen self-inflicted wounds.

  23. “The quibble I have with Karl’s comment above is that identity preservation does occur in the natural world – but it doesn’t happen all the time.”
    Can you provide an example? I’m not clear here on what people are calling IP.

  24. I’m sure someone has a better definition but I’d say that an identity preserved trait is a trait that defines a line or a brand that can be easily changed by “contaminating” genetic material. I’d guess that most IPTs (is that an ok abbreviation? IP is intellectual property) are recessive, then – or at least subject to a sort of dominance- traits that can be “messed up” with just a single allele (or action, I suppose, in the case of seedless mandarins).
    There’s lots of desirable recessive traits out there. Sweet corn sweetness is definitely one, as OrchidGrownMan describes below. Sugar beet color is an IPT (white vs the dominant red). Recessive flower color in commercial flowers… lots more. I think I agree with Eric here. IPTs might not be quite as old as breeding but I bet it’s close.

  25. It seems so obvious – why do people have a hard time understanding that gene flow isn’t just about GMOs? Maybe they need to try to grow sweet corn, popcorn, and flour corn and see how it turns out.

  26. That’s a good point, although sometimes I wonder if it would actually do much good to spend more time on the science (just look at fervent anti-vaccine people who refuse to face science).
    We are set up to have a whole lot of stuff about feeding studies and other safety studies here: https://biofortified.org/genera/ but unfortunately as grad students we don’t have much time. Want to help? 🙂

  27. Not to muddy the waters, but the true zealots will have nothing to do with so-called “organic” regulations and certification schemes on the grounds that megabusiness has already captured those schemes and messed them up.

  28. Eric:

    The other half is that the ‘harm’ to the organic farmers is self-inflicted. They themselves impose upon themselves the definition of organic farming which establishes the scope of their alleged victimhood. Neither law nor ethics supports the claim that others should be responsible for freely-chosen self-inflicted wounds.

    This may have been a fair accusation several years ago, but it fails the current situation. The USDA has promulgated an Organic standard. If you want to market a product with the USDA organic label you have to meet many criteria and submit your operations to frequent audits to maintain your certification. Note also that organic standards are different between nations which will impact a producer who would choose to export her production – but that’s a matter for another discussion.
    By choosing to follow all the standards, undergo all the audits, one encumbers more production expense than neighboring producers not engaged in organic practice. The expectation of premium in the market would justify this choice. If your production is compromised by pollen from a neighboring GMO crop (and this contamination is detected…) you can lose certification for that production. This production can be marketed as non-organic, but this still results in a financial hit due to the higher input costs incurred. So to me at least I’d consider “phenotypically irrelevant outcrossing”, “alleged victimhood”, and “freely-chosen self-inflicted” to be inaccurate assessments of the situation.
    Jeremy makes a good point below… there are some of the earlier organic proponents who do now grouse about the USDA standard as a sort of sell out.

  29. Anastasia:
    IP is the abbreviation used for ‘identity preserved’ in the marketplace. For our discussion we just need to specify which we’re using. IP doesn’t necessarily imply the presense of a trait in the genetic sense of a particuluar gene or suite of genes causing a particluar phenotype. It might imply the absence of a gene (thus, non-GMO is one character that can be a reason for IP). Because IP isn’t strictly about genetics the notion of recessive or dominant isn’t necessary.
    IP goes beyond the farmgate as well. We are far beyond the time when one consumes what they produce. So now we have elevators that buy and sell both GMO and non-GMO grains. Where the non-GMO grain is marketed with a premium there has to be segregation of the two streams within the elevator’s infrastucture…. identity must be preserved.
    Identity preservation as a marketing tool would seem to me to go back as far as trade marking and branding. The Dutch tulip market would have had an IP system of some sort, long, long ago (see Botany of Desire by Michael Pollan for a discussion).
    Just out of curiosity, how old do you consider breeding to be?

  30. Pdiff:
    In a reply below to Anastasia I made some remarks about what I consider IP to be in the marketplace. This doesn’t match well with what I was thinking about in my quibble remark above. So I’m glad you asked for the clarification.
    Identity preservation occurs in nature all the time. Seems it has to. As organisms struggle in the environment to leave offspring they are essentially struggling to preserve their genotype (their identity). OK, so that’s a pretty serious stretch of the current discussion. Sorry about that. But allow me to walk that back a bit.
    In the sense that identity (phenotype) is what a genotype is in the business of making, higher organisms have evolved all sorts of nifty means of reproducing themselves in face of many different challenges. Within a stable environmental niche identity preservation is a pretty fair strategy.

  31. C radar brings up an interesting point, one that escaped me at first. In the old South in the U.S., a business or neighborhood of all white people might consider themselves harmed by having a black person work at the business or move into the neighborhood. They may be racist themselves, or they might not be at all – but they would at least be perceptive of the racism of others. The business owner may worry about losing business even though they have no problem with black people, and the neighborhood may worry about their property values falling (There goes the neighborhood) because of the racism of others. But we agree today that this sort of direct or indirect racism (depends on the racism of others) is wrong, regardless of the perceived harm or even real economic harm that the white people want to prevent. So demonstrating harm to one side does not automatically mean that they get their way – you have to consider the rights of the black people who want to work or live, and the harm it does to them by preventing them from being able to do that. And their rights of self-determination trump the economic harm to the white people. So therefore, we must also consider the harm done to the first party by the second party trying to limit the first party’s rights.
    So in this discussion of coexistence of GE and non-GE, we must also consider the rights of the farmers who want to grow what they want on their farms, and the beekeepers, and the citrus growers, etc. If certain kinds of rights are more important than certain kinds of harms, we need to determine that before passing judgement.

  32. I’m going to go ahead and complain about the racism comparison – it goes too far imo (not quite as far as the rape comparison brought up in the twitter feed recently but close enough that I find it distasteful) – Let’s not cheapen the reality of current or past racism by using it as a tool to argue for or against something which is vastly less important.

  33. The reality of the definition of ‘organic farming’ being self-inflicted is borne out by the fact that there is a revolving door between the organic industry and Federal regulators.

  34. I need to get out of the transgenics business and into the selling revolving doors to government business – it seems they have an awful lot!
    (insert normal arguement about employing people who know what the hell they’re on about instead of Joe-Schmo)

  35. Ok. Thanks for the clarification. For me, any talk of Identity Preservation is meaningless outside of a human realm. Genotypes, phenotypes, species, tribes, kingdoms, etc, etc, as pure entities, are merely human constructs.
    As organisms struggle in the environment to leave offspring they are essentially struggling to preserve their genotype (their identity).
    No. This is a common fallacy. Genes reproduce and attempt perpetuation, not organisms. Darwin’s finches are a classic example here. A specific genotype was introduced to a set of niches, however, the genotype did not preserve, but rather specific genes within the introduced set did, over multiple environments.


    “Within a stable environmental niche identity preservation is a pretty fair strategy.”

    I would argue that this is unrealistic. Environmental niches are not stable (as in unchanging). Even short term climatic changes can alter niches dramatically. Hence, variability is the only viable strategy for long term survival, and that is on the level of survival of individual genes, not a higher order of classification. This is why preservation, as used here, is not natural. It works in the exact opposite direction of nature. It is a human activity that attempts to maintain a constant set of genes (genotype) and/or their expression (phenotype) while nature is continually “pushing” to alter them.
    I realize that all this is a bit semantic and depends on how specific and detailed one wants to get when defining what we are preserving the identity of. I’m being particularly specific, down to the gene level. This however, is exactly what opponents of GMO are doing. Fertilization by a single pollen grain is sufficient to trigger rejection. It is another example of the Precautionary Principle taken to absurd levels.

  36. Eric Baumholder said:
    “The reality of the definition of ‘organic farming’ being self-inflicted…”
    In Europe, the reality is that the lobby that includes organic farming was running for mandatory labelling as containing GMOs at the threshold of 0.1%, which was then the detection limit. The European Union has eventually settled for 0.9%, which is also the tolerance for organic produce. This is still insane, just consider that certified seed may contain more genetic impurities. The game was to make it as difficult as possible to grow GMOs free of litigation risk or, to use c_rader terminology (which I find very appropriate), the aim was the create maximum potential for harm by definition.
    Council Regulation (EC) No. 834/2007 of 28 June 2007 on organic production and labelling of organic products and repealing Regulation (EEC) No. 2092/91 (http://eur-lex.europa.eu/LexUriServ/LexUriServ.do?uri=OJ:L:2007:189:0001:0023:EN:PDF) says in the preamble that:
    “Genetically modified organisms (GMOs) and products produced from or by GMOs are incompatible with the concept of organic production and consumers’ perception of organic products. They should therefore not be used in organic farming or in the processing of organic products.”
    Why are they incompatible? Because this is a self-imposed limitation, without any scientific, technical or economic rationale.
    What about the consumers’ perception? Whilst it has not been fabricated by the organic movement, it has been largely nurtured and is being actively nurtured. In short: self-inflicted.

  37. Karl:
    So in this discussion of coexistence of GE and non-GE, we must also consider the rights of the farmers who want to grow what they want on their farms, and the beekeepers, and the citrus growers, etc. If certain kinds of rights are more important than certain kinds of harms, we need to determine that before passing judgement.

    This is exactly right. We face these kinds of problems everyday, and resolving them one way or another is one of main functions of government. The rights of a few vs the desires of the many. The difficulties come in defining the risks, harms, and justifiable rights. Science and scientific argument can only provide a limited basis for rational decisions here.Clem is correct that perception in the market place can trump reality. Perhaps it would be better then to work on changing perceptions. Yeah, I know …tough task for either side:-)

  38. “Within a stable environmental niche identity preservation is a pretty fair strategy.”
    I would argue that this is unrealistic. Environmental niches are not stable (as in unchanging).

    I don’t know that it is unrealistic that there could exist a stable environmental niche but I do think it rather unlikely that there is a strategy which maintains environmental niche identity even in an unchanging environment – if you’re in an unchanging environment, and you’re optimized to this environment, then any deviation from the optimum will be selected against – there’s no need to postulate some strategy towards maintaining identity – natural selection will do this for you.

    Hence, variability is the only viable strategy for long term survival, and that is on the level of survival of individual genes, not a higher order of classification.

    I think you’re mixing levels here – at the level of the gene variability isn’t an option, the moment you’re a variant you aren’t that gene (allele I guess, but generally in evolutionary discussion about selection at the level of the gene I encounter gene used interchangably with allele, and as Allele is my favorite name to use in MMORPGs I’ll stick with gene, as I never did like KISS too much) but its competition – for a given species it may appear optimal strategy for long term survival to maintain a mixed bag of genes – but given that there is no mechanism by which evolution can plan long term I think we can discard of this as a strategy (variation may be maintained for other reasons, but not for the capacity to survive for a long time)

  39. “I don’t know that it is unrealistic that there could exist a stable environmental niche …”
    This is somewhat dependent on your time frame. Short term stability may be approached in some cases, but for most organisms, that is probably irrelevant genetically. Long term, no niche is stable, by which I mean unchanging.
    “…at the level of the gene variability isn’t an option, the moment you’re a variant you aren’t that gene… ”
    Ok, I think we are talking about different things here. I understand the variability in genes to be called alleles, e.g. there is a gene for eye color. Variations in that gene (different alleles) can lead to different colored eyes (phenotypes). The gene in a population can have variability and still be considered the “eye color” gene. Perhaps I have this wrong …. When we talk about genotype here, are we referring to a specific set of alleles (whether they are expressed as phenotypes or not)?
    Point taken on calling it a “strategy” for survival. Anthropomorphic analogies … hard to resist …

  40. This is somewhat dependent on your time frame. Short term stability may be approached in some cases, but for most organisms, that is probably irrelevant genetically. Long term, no niche is stable, by which I mean unchanging.

    I’m just being kinda nitpicky and agree in general – however I’d posit that deep sea environments and subterranean environments (deep rock bacterial communities) are probably relatively stable over what would be considered long term (ish)

    When we talk about genotype here, are we referring to a specific set of alleles (whether they are expressed as phenotypes or not)?

    Normally when discussing evolutionary stuff I’d consider “gene” and survival of said “gene” to fit more into the “Allele” categorization – there may always be a gene for eye colour for instance (to simplify vastly) with various Alleles (lets say blue, green and octiron) – if a selective pressure is set up such that blue is selected against and octiron for you’d say that the gene for octiron eyes is the one that will survive with the other two going extinct. Whenever I hear arguements about evolution at the level of the gene I always consider it to be arguements about differential survival of the alleles of that gene, not about the locus itself surviving (are there any discussions around that aspect?)
    I probably should refer to alleles as a geneticist, but I’ve read too much Dawkins and done too little genetics in the past decade (and played too much Everquest and World of Warcraft apparently)

  41. I’d posit that deep sea environments and subterranean environments (deep rock bacterial communities) are probably relatively stable over what would be considered long term (ish)

    Hmmmm…. Any thoughts on the genetic consistency of these populations?
    I agree with the allele idea and would alter my post above in some places to refer to allele if I could. It is more what I had in mind.
    What about my question? Is a genotype a set of alleles? It seems that, using the above as a basis, genotype in this overall discussion refers to a specific set of alleles. That is, a GMO (or aunt Jamies heirloom variety) could change the allele set, and therefore change the genotype, thereby causing discontinuity in Identity Preservation.

  42. Curses to the nested responses not expecting protracted discussions on ridiculous side issues… anyway…
    Genetic consistency of environments discussed – I’m honestly not sure, I seem to recall that phenotypically some deep sea organisms don’t look overly different to their nearest ancestors 65M years+ ago (Coelocanths spring to mind, although how accurate this recall is…) so one might presume that traitwise they’d be considered identity preserved ™ by good old mother nature – one would have to, I think, assume a certain amount of drift genetically – and given that other organisms represent a big part of any environment the general stability of such areas may just be due to lack of a proper historical record of all lifeforms… but I still think its a possiblity.
    Is a genotype a set of alleles? (No a set of Alleles is either a set of cloned druids, or hunters, depending on which game you’re playing!) – that’d be my current take on it, from a professional stance – we refer to different hybrids as different genotypes, and the general distinguishing difference between hybrid A and hybrid B is the set of alleles contained therein.
    Interestingly here I think is that while a genetic insert would change the genotype by adding an allele it wouldn’t change the genotype by removal or replacement of alleles from within the transformed variety – and proper breeding in of the trait into other varieties likewise wouldn’t necessarily change native allele composition so as such a genetically modified version of plant X isn’t necessarily violating the identity – whereas cross breeding by definition will replace/add alleles and as such can massively violate the identity – so if we’re concerned that the presence of a transgene is infringing IP then a much larger concern is the presence of any of the same species but of a different variety elsewhere as indubitably they’d contain thousands of alleles which would violate your allelic integrity. /madeupterminology

  43. Ok, good example on the sea critters.
    Thanks for the clarification on genotype-allele question. More transgression away from the topic, but … would you consider your professional definition of variety different than a producer’s? I’m thinking specifically here about a bred hybrid variety versus, say, an heirloom variety.

  44. I don’t think my definition of a variety would be overly different to a producers – although that may jsut be my own personal ignorance of what a producer would consider a variety… DKD103-23 (to invent a likely sounding dekalb hybrid name) has very specific genetics which make it what it is and not DKD102-42 – that’s what I would consider a variety and is the same as say ABC123+NNX234 (which would be a breederish way of denoting the parentage of a hybrid – a cross of inbred ABC123 by NNX234, and rather sexistly ladies first!) most heirlooms I’d also guess would have pretty fixed genetics and thus allele changes would mess them up – OP varieties however I’m a tad unsure about (how exactly does one maintain a variety that has no actual control over what pollinates what? Karl? Anastasia?)…
    *all hybrid and inbred names here are entirely fictitious and any resemblance to real hybrids is coincidental (the nomenclature conventions are similar)

  45. With regard to genetic purity and identity in the natural world, a lack of genetic diversity is a very unstable phenomenon. It either leads to extinction… or back to diversity again. There is a bit of a push and pull in evolution between preventing the influx of genetic diversity and encouraging it, with species specializing in their strategies. Certainly, while environments are relatively stable, too much change can take you out of the optimum fitness range, and when the environment is very volatile, diversity helps you find the peaks and troughs again. Species have barriers to reproducing with relative species, and others have barriers against inbreeding. (A recent study found that both phenomena were caused by the same gene!)
    But even if you could find an ideal genotype/phenotype for an environment, say, for scrub on a hillside, you will still not get genetic purity, for the simple fact that other strategies by members of the same species will exploit the weaknesses of the first genotype, and maybe grow spindly-like to climb on top. Now the first scrubby plant is at a disadvantage and the population will change. A constant flux is going on in the real world.
    We humans, however, like our little boxes. An “identity-preserved” variety is a human invention, and the reason why we attempt to fix certain varieties is to bring predictability into our lives, from the seed producer to the farm, grocery store, kitchen, dinner plate, tongue, bowels, and beyond.
    Wow – all this discussion started by a quibble!
    Re: Ewan: I think for OP varieties, you will see genetic drift and even selection going on. You’ve got a mix of allelic diversity at some loci, while other loci may be fixed, or homozygous. The frequencies of the diverse alleles can change over time, new alleles can be brought in, and others disappear. I don’t know any studies off-hand that look at these changes, but I think they do indeed occur. To maintain an OP variety you would probably want to select seeds from the middle of your field, not the borders, that way there is less of a likelihood of cross-pollination. If you are really gung-ho you could do a bunch of random controlled pollinations (I have done some of these with a crazy multi-ear-shoot population of maize for several summers) to try to maintain the same allele frequencies.

  46. My experience with maintenance of OP varieties is through either caging, hand pollination or isolation in time or space. Which is why I question heirlooms. The tomato varieties I grow are heirloom and some show considerable variation within the varieties. I’m not sure how much of that is due to sloppy seed production or just the background genetics of the variety. Many of these that I get are simply strains that people (from all over) have regrown for many years. I don’t know of any quality controls (GMO or otherwise) over them. So the question is, if Anastatia’s lady farmer from the first article is growing Sudduth’s Brandywine tomatoes for seed increases, how do “we” know her original seed source was clean to begin with? How could you reasonably show that any contamination came from a neighbor.

    From WikiPedia: “It reached modern popularity after being introduced via the Seed Savers Exchange in 1982 by an elderly Ohio gardener named Ben Quisenberry. He received the variety from a woman named Dorris Sudduth Hill who could trace Brandywine in her family for over 80 years.”

  47. Re: Ewan, Yeah we could find a better example that is not so emotionally charged. I continued with it only to extract a principle that we could use for other situations.
    Re: Pdiff, Yay, I said something that made sense! I was having an out-loud argument with myself while waiting for the bus the other day in the morning. Maybe a combination of a bagel and coffee and keeping warm in sub-freezing temperatures makes my mind bubble forth. One of the key issues involved in the debate over cross-pollination of GE crops is what it means for someone to have a right, and in this case, to have a right to grow something on their land. The argument that if someone doesn’t want to grow any GE plants on their land, that a nearby farmer cannot grow a GE crop uses one’s right to grow what they want as its basis. However, in order to reach the desired conclusion, you have to negate the same right of the nearby farmer to grow what they want. So you end up negating the basis for your own argument. I think we would go a long way toward discussing co-existence if we got everyone to agree that farmers have an equal right to grow a GE crop as farmers who do not want to grow a GE crop. Once you accept that, logic compels a solution that is not one-sided.
    Here I am, suggesting that logic be used in politics!

  48. “Reply” link seems to have gone AWOL, so …
    Karl wrote:

    To maintain an OP variety you would probably want to select seeds from the middle of your field, not the borders, that way there is less of a likelihood of cross-pollination. If you are really gung-ho you could do a bunch of random controlled pollinations

    It’s a little more complicated than that in the real world. Good maintainers essentially practice balancing selection on the phenotyping, roguing offtypes that do not match that variety’s “identity”. For some outbreeders, such as maize and cucurbits, they often carry out controlled pollinations. For others gathering seeds from central plants in a block, after roguing, is enough. Inbreeders such as beans can be tricky because the testa is parental and shows no effect of cross-pollination. And many varieties of inbreeders are better considered mixtures anyway.
    I wish I could share my book chapter on farmer varieties, identity preservation and intellectual property rights, but it hasn’t been finally peer-reviewed and accepted yet. Lets just say that it is tricky; involving the plant’s breeding system, environmental variability and many diverse human social factors.

  49. Also, the distinction between “heirloom” and “OP” is somewhat meaningless, and certainly unimportant to this part of the discussion.

  50. In the natural world, a group of individuals of a population that have many characteristics in common, enough that can distinguish that group from most others, whether it is OP or not, would be what we call a landrace. That population would not contain identical genotypes, though certain alleles would most probably be at higher frequency than others. That is about as close to identity preserved as you can get in nature, below the species or sub-species level.
    A long used, almost classic example of identity preservation would be the sales classes in wheat, which are specified in seed laws, so that if you get a mixture of one type of seed in another, it results in a reduced grade at the elevator. Pollen exchange is not much of an issue there, since wheat is predominantly self pollinated.
    Sweet corn has already been mentioned, as pollen from field corn can have an immediate effect on the sweetness of the product, due to xenia. Yet, it is a well known situation, and most corn farmers have learned to live with it. If they want to market their sweet corn as super sweet, they accept that it is their responsibility to isolate it, either in distance or timing.

  51. Maintaining an open pollinated variety is not easy, as the populations will shift over time. About the best that can be done other than the techniques you mentioned, would be to practice ongoing mass selection, where you select only the most representative plants to save for seed for the next generation. There is always the possibility of outcrossing (if self incompatibility is involved, outcrossing is required) and the introduction of new alleles. The maintainer has to be diligent in selecting for the original type.
    This reminds me of a study a while back (pre-internet) where someone sampled the old historical wheat variety Centurk from various state breeding programs, as each breeding program usually maintains their own. It was found that the sample from a state several states away from the state that released it was the closest genotypically to the sample stored in the National Small Grains Collection. All samples showed some drift, but some states did a better job of maintaining the original type — this in a self-pollinating crop!

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