Heirlooms are Obsolete

Written by Matt DiLeo

“Heirlooms were varieties that were so unsuccessful that they wouldn’t be sold today…

Every product declines until it’s replaced by new heirlooms.”

The backlash was inevitable.

What are heirlooms? A 1949 article in the New York Times defined them as “open pollinated varieties [i.e. genetically stable lines, not F1 hybrids] that are more than 50 years old and have been handed down through generations.” It fits the modern technical definition – but not the contemporary consumer’s expectation for a primary focus on taste.

Plant breeding is an always ongoing process. Breeders grow out their core collection of genotypes every year, cross them and collect seeds from the best individuals. Occasionally new genotypes with new properties are added to the mix, but for the most part a breeding program is a conveyer belt that continuously improves the quality and performance of a given crop.

People in the past never viewed their crops as perfect – they were always trying to improve their favorite varieties, whether to get better production, to fit changing fashions, or to excel in new environments. As voiced in the above article, “A 1902 cabbage by Burpee was a perfectly good cabbage by 1902 standards… But none of our ancestors ever viewed these things as done. You never stopped breeding your livestock. You never stopped selecting your cabbage.” People tend to lock onto the idea that older varieties tasted better while forgetting that, even when taste was excellent,* reliable performance in the garden was often not.

In light of inevitable reality, the executive director of Seed Savers suggests that the term “heirloom” include all of the following:
  1. Family legacies – e.g. some special plant rediscovered growing in someone’s garden
  2. Old (obsolete) market varieties – e.g. the Danvers carrot and Rutgers tomato**
  3. Modern heirlooms – e.g. the sugar snap pea, developed by a vegetable breeder in the 1970s
  4. Mystery heirlooms – e.g. varieties that have been preserved by farmers and gardeners
Ultimately, the age of the variety doesn’t really matter. Gardeners who understand value heirlooms for their diversity and the invitation to participate in the ownership and future of agriculture and self-sufficiency. I’d like to see potential amateur plant breeders out there shift their thoughts on heirlooms from the past to the future. As said in the article: “The great bank of heirloom seeds is ripe for fresh creations and practical improvements.”

There’s a place for celebrating classic technologies (and crop varieties), but I’m more interested in seeing people move beyond a fixation on an overly idealized past to create their own future.

h/t: Plant Breeding News (3/2011)

* One Dutch friend told me that, contrary to the popular perception that foods were better during our youth, the tomatoes he grew up with were huge and red – but watery and tasteless. Commercial tomatoes available in the Netherlands today are much tastier.
** The Rutgers tomato, released in the 1930s, was one of the earliest mass-market tomato varieties. It was bred largely as a processing tomato (i.e. paste and ketchup, not fresh eating). It’s ironic that the same people who turn their noses up at modern commercial varieties would embrace an obsolete version of the same thing. 

Written by Guest Expert

Matt DiLeo has a PhD in Plant Pathology from UC, Davis. During his postdoctoral research at Boyce Thompson Institute, he researched unintentional effects of genetic engineering. Matt builds R&D teams and biotech platforms: genome editing, gene discovery, microbials, and controlled environment agriculture.


  1. I clicked on the first link, and was surprised to learn about Michael Pollan’s article The Seed Conspiracy, which painted (in a delightful manner) up the notion that F1 hybrids are all about preserving the profits of big companies and industrial ag – or so the catalog he uncritically talked about said. There was no mention of any of the actual biological characteristics of what makes a hybrid useful on the farm or in the garden, save dousing it with fertilizer. Heterosis be damned.
    At UW Madison, years ago they tested the claim that old varieties were better tasting than modern ones by bringing in a bunch of old-timers and having them do a blind taste test. The modern ones came out on top.
    There is a lot of room in plant breeding for people to rescue varieties and improve them, bringing interesting traits into modern varieties or to make interesting backyard novelties. So I completely agree with your analysis that the emphasis should be on improving the future rather than idealizing and recapturing the past.

  2. Another myth bites the dust.
    I’m a small farmer recently de-converted from “organics” by logic and the likes of Nina Federoff, etc.
    Totally enjoy reading the articles here.

  3. The idea that hybridization is just a way for seed companies to keep control of their seeds is completely overblown. Especially in the vegetable seed market, there are plenty of companies that are doing very well selling open-pollinated (and even public domain) seed. It’s not a trivial thing to produce and store high-quality seed, and plenty of (even poor) farmers choose to buy seed each spring rather than save their own. One of the additional problems of saving vegetable seed is that, unlike dry grains, it can really mess up your rotations. You’ll net a lot more profit tilling your cabbage field the day after harvest and putting in green beans than by waiting another couple weeks for some of the cabbage to get around to bolting and maturing. The value of saving seed is also diminished in actively-bred OP vegetable varieties as at this point any new variety becomes obsolete in just a few years.
    And as you say, Karl, heterosis is a pretty great thing. There’s a big push right now to get hybrid vegetables simply because farmers prefer hybrid vegetables over OPs. Hybrid seed is slightly more expensive, but seed costs are overall a small part of the total costs of farming.

  4. Heirloom seed occupies a nexus of activist narratives.
    It represents a rejection of corporate control of seed. It represents an effort to “preserve the stupendously precious biodiversity of crops that is being destroyed by corporate interests”. And as Karl pointed out, the nostalgia over earlier times which were supposedly better than today (the Eden narrative) also figures largely.
    There is one thing we can be grateful for: these seeds are only for small-time enthusiasts. If the market at large had to use heirloom seeds, there would be more hungry people than we now have.

  5. This is really a matter of scale. For many small producers, e.g. farmer’s market scale, heirlooms are worth it because, like “organic”, they bring a premium price. This is true for the nursery and restaurant side, as well. It depends on what price I’m getting for that cabbage as to whether it gets plowed under or not. Having production drag out over the season is not necessarily a disadvantage if you are still pulling produce late in the season when everyone else is done. As one scales the volume up, however, consistency, uniformity, and timing become more important and hybrids are likely a better choice.
    As a gardener, I often go the heirloom route as I get much more variety to choose from in addition to better adaptation to northern climes. That said, though, I’m not fanatic about it either.

  6. I disagree, heirloom varieties are a bank of genetic diversity. A number of years ago (70’s?) we had a problem with a rust (corn rust I think) that threatened food production, and it was a mecixan land race (heirloom) variety of corn that we went to to find the resistance that reversed the epidemic and set us on the right path (if I remember right, obviously my memory of this subject is not extremely strong.

  7. There’s a difference between being obsolete and being useful – the mexican landrace wasn’t used by itself – the useful trait was lifted from it and dumped into relevant germ right? I think the obsoleteness arguement here isn’t one of utility within the system as a source of variability (which is unknowable imo given a changing environment – and a good reason to maintain varieties) but utility within the system as a production variety.

  8. Yeah, I agree – I think the main point is for people to keep in mind that a tomato variety is more than the SNP that causes a unique fruit color. Every heirloom and modern variety is a combination of thousands of loci that affect food quality AND environment-specific agronomic performance. I’m hoping that the market for commercial and garden seed will support the development of lots of new varieties that are excellent in both these categories.

  9. Love the article.
    For a long time, I have been growing progressively leery and irritated at the Luddite irrational positions of so many in the “capital-O, capital-G” movement and its co-travelers. This is another useful exposition of ideas I had not yet bothered to essay into an organized position.
    Yes, I grow a lot of heirlooms. Hybrids too. The problem is that the financial investment in developing a commercial hybrid pretty much requires that it be fitted to a sufficiently big market, so novelty varieties are much easier to find among heirlooms (sensu lato: see article). I like novelty for itself, and because it is a manifestation of underlying genetic diversity (phenotype reflecting genotype). Actually, I REALLY prefer varieties intended for my “boutique-farmed” market, in a small undercatered climatic zone, rather than mass-market or commercial varieties intended for large-scale production in a different environment. There are some specialized purveyors for specific regions, but they have to compete against the “Big Boys.” (You Bastard!)
    Actually actually, the BEST is when I have a proprietary version all to myself, an F1 that only I know how to make. Bwaa-haa-haaa-haa-haa! ALL YOUR GERMPLASM ARE MINE!


    They set us up the F1. All your germplasm are belong to us.

  11. I like heirlooms. They’re what I tend to grow, and I think they’re pretty neat with all those varied traits you can find in those but not in some of the more mainstream varieties, like Kellogg’s Breakfast, now that’s a good tomato, already got last year’s seed started. And that’s another thing I like, having control of the seed without need to pick up more next year. But jeez the heirloom fan club really can be annoying. They tend to be jumpy, paranoid, conspiratorial, scientifically illiterate…well meaning yes but generally pretty clueless. Those might not very nice things to say, but that has been my experience. There’s definitely some sort of disconnect somewhere.
    The thing that really got me a while ago was I bought a good bit of seed from a site called Baker Creek, and when I got their catalog in the end it praised Zambia for rejecting the GMO corn donation. You know, the time where people were saying, quote, “We don’t care if it is poisonous because we are dying anyway.” Praising something that caused such misery, if not death, because it furthers a pro-heirloom anti-technology agenda, that is outrageous, and you can bet that was the last time I buy anything from them, which is kind of a shame since they have an number of things I’d still like to try someday. And then they have the huevos to act as if it is the pro-GM side that is uncaring.
    But I still like heirlooms, although it’s pretty hard to deny the facts of heterosis, that if all agriculture were hybrid free probably wouldn’t end well, and that there are some pretty good hybrids out there too, like the avatar thing I’ve got is a hybrid I grew last year, and I’ve never seen an heirloom red sweet corn. Also, contrary to popular belief, developing countries are not rich countries’ seed banks. And its hard to imagine all those varieties of heirlooms have equal merit. I’m sure there’s plenty of good and bad, plenty of useless misplaced nostalgia, but plenty of worthwhile, useful genetic resources too, depending on what individual case we’re talking about.
    What I’d really like to see is the heirloom group’s reaction to apomixis GMOs. If those were developed and put up for commercialization, if hybrid seed were now savable, I’d like to see what would be stronger, their anti-GMO sentiment, or their notion that everyone should save seed.

  12. I see their value as being primarily in the biodiversity, and general ease of care (in the case of disease this is a side effect of the biodiversity). I doubt that anyone growing them is growing them because of how bountiful the harvest is. For the purpose they are used for they are not obsolete. For commodity production they would be, but they have their niche and they are good at it, and the fact that we depends on them for our massive commodity operations to work is a good reason not to go after them for gardenshare.

  13. “What I’d really like to see is the heirloom group’s reaction to apomixis GMOs. If those were developed and put up for commercialization, if hybrid seed were now savable, I’d like to see what would be stronger, their anti-GMO sentiment, or their notion that everyone should save seed.”
    Anti-GMO sentiments and seed-saving sentiments tend to occur together. A lingering element of the proto-Marxist creed, the claim that ‘property is theft’. Since seeds belong to everyone, they don’t belong to anyone.
    Which is why a planned economy is required. If seed doesn’t belong to anyone, where are we going to find seed breeders/producers? They won’t work for free, not even members of Homo sovieticus.
    It’s good to remember that after the Fall of the (German) Wall, neo-Marxists from behind the ‘Iron Curtain’ made common cause with the environmentalists. And it’s easy to spot ‘planned economy’ initiatives in the Green movement.

  14. I disagree with that old definition of “open pollinated”. To me open pollinated means pollinated in the open, which means it is most likely not any variety at all, but a genetically diverse landrace able to resist or adapt to many different abiotic stresses. In my mind that also means that a large percentage would be naturally occurring hybrids, and are not genetically stable lines at all. This is an advantage over planting 1 variety of heirloom which are not adapted to all local conditions.
    I also disagree that they were unsuccessful back then. I think at the time they did very well, but now that they are old, they do indeed need to be improved.

  15. Andrew, do you have any reference for open-pollinated meaning a genetic swarm and not a distinct line? That’s not the way I’ve usually seen it used.

  16. Whoa! GregH!
    Kellog’s Breakfast is one of my real faves: I have been trying to characterize how it is so different from other varieties other than a pretty high brix. If I could get that flavour and texture into a variety that produces six times as much, I’d have a winner. Some of the other novelty varieties have a lot to offer too, like the “black” ones, and some that take-up sodium. Where did you encounter KB? I thought it a pretty obscure var except for pockets of fandom. What about KBX, the supposedly-improved variant? One problem is that KB produces so few seeds per (huge) fruit; I shall have to use the mechanical mill to get the seeds next year, as manual methods are inadequate.

  17. I’ve long wondered what techniques are used by seed-savers to get viable vegetable seeds.
    Do they leave the veggies to rot and desiccate on the plant and pluck the seeds from the dried remains?
    I’ve pulled seeds out of acorn squash — part of the process of cooking — and planted them. Nothing results.

  18. Eric,
    Many seeds are INTENDED to be eaten and pass through a digestion; quite a few of them won’t germinate otherwise. (Look-up Calvaria). Often “rotting” (fermentation) can suffice, as it does with tomatoes (and it also cleans them of the adherent jelly so you can see the lovely ornamented testa and they don’t stick together).
    Many other fertile seeds require weird conditions to induce germination: light or dark, washing-away of inhibitors, exposure to chemicals characteristic of smoke (Restio), gibberellins (Rebutia), a complicated warm/cold or wet/dry sequence (Lilium), etc. We won’t talk about orcids. Domesticated species tend to be selected for loss of such specializations, but where they exist, they are known, at least by the seed producers and users. Germinating wild-collected seed can involve some (educated) guesswork.
    But getting back to your squash question: are you sure you weren’t infected with the dreaded “Terminator Technology” GMO Poison? (Seriously, the seeds may have been immature, undeveloped (empty) due to poor pollination, or simply eaten-up for their delicious oily goodness after you planted them.)

  19. OrchidGrowinMan,
    I’ve long suspected that the seeds of acorn squash won’t germinate because they’re immature. Culinary-grade acorn squash are green, and if left to their own devices instead, they turn orange.
    Much like green peppers; if left alone, they turn yellow and red.
    Which seems like ultimate proof of a conspiracy to prevent consumers from planting seeds from the vegetables they eat. 😉

  20. Eric,
    Actually, I think some producers DO try to prevent further use: cut-flower Alstroemerias are mostly triploids, pollen-sterile, so you can’t make simple hybrids with them (though I have been able to use a bit of technology to regenerate plants [as an experiment only!]). This may be because trips are better for the purpose than dips and tets, but I doubt it.
    Squashes are notorious for not coming true, even though I believe nobody plants hybrids. It may be that better pollination is obtained if the producing variety is interplanted with some extra-macho varieties that make lots of male flowers.
    Passionfruit (P. edulis and others) is routinely hand-pollinated with pollen from a different species: supposedly the pollen parent makes a difference in fruit quality.
    And finally, though I’m generally in favor of food irradiation, it renders produce useless for propagation.
    But for your squash issue, I think it was mostly bad luck: winter-squash varieties like “Acorn” should be harvested mature. SUMMER squash is harvested immature. Interestingly, it appears that Summer Squash is one of the few contributions of NORTH American aboriginal agriculture to the present day. Cucurbita pepo was either independently domesticated or the “Summer” type developed from elsewhere earlier-domesticated C.p. “pumpkins.” http://www.pnas.org/content/103/33/12223.abstract
    There are just a few other NAm domesticates, and some that were lost, some before European contact.
    It is interesting to speculate that Passiflora incarnata may once have had a domesticated form. I think there was a domesticated Iva too, that was apparently supplanted by sunflower.
    But I don’t get paid to muse on archaeology, so it’s back to the toil!

  21. OrchidGrowinMan,
    Re your experiment of regenerating flowers, there’s some do-it-yourself (DIY) gene “hackers” that are regenerating patented GM blue carnations, to “make a statement”.
    See ‘DIYbio hacking Singapore’, DIYbio flower revolution in Asia,
    February 13, 2011, http://diybiosingapore.wordpress.com/
    The DIY biotech movement has been around for a while. Oddly, Greenpeace et. al. have nothing to say about it. It’s either good clean fun or a threat that will reduce the biosphere to ‘gray goo’. 😉 :-0

  22. Emerson,
    OK: you can tell I don’t “do” squash; I was under the impression it was almost all OP plantings…. There is only one UK breeder I know of: http://www.tozerseeds.com/ Still, the point is that the seeds in the fruit may have had a “contribution” from a variety dissimilar to the type of the parent plant, the same as with passionfruit. I believe P. quadrangularis and P. edulis are often pollinated with P. foetida, an edible buit small-fruited species, so you probably wouldn’t want to plant the seeds. Grafted plants are available for quick “vinyard” establishment.
    Incidentally, P. incarnata apparently never (or at least inconsistently) forms storage stems (rhizomes) from cuttings, juat as Adenia cuttings often don’t form caudices. Maybe such organs must develop from the hypocotyl?

  23. Cool.
    Speaking of gray goo, and stinky too, this reminds me of the brou-ha-ha that was discussed over on Pharyngula when high-schoolers were transforming E. coli in class….
    I know lots of people who do tissue-culture at home, but nobody with a PCM machine…. I DO know somebody with an SEM with microprobe and x-ray spectrometer. When he has a party, everybody brings their micro-mount minerals for analysis… but if he fires-up the x-ray diffractometer in the bunker out back, I’m outta’ there!

  24. Someone sent me some seed and I just saved some from the tomatoes. I noticed that there wasn’t much seed in them too. But I’ve never heard of any improved varieties, that’s new on me. I’m trying one of those black ones this year too, one called Carbon, it’s supposed to be pretty good. I’m also trying White Tomesol to match it. I’m kinda expecting the darker colored one to be better though, but I’ll see.

  25. I grew about a dozen or more tomato varieties for a metabolomics project the past two years and definitely enjoyed the dark and weird colored ones (like black plum) over the white and yellow/orange ones (like white beauty). although, the white one has the novelty of making white tomato sauce. green zebra was highly recommended for frying and hank was one of my favorites – a smallish salad tomato with crazy lobes, intense tomato flavor and a very unique metabolic profile (to be published… 😉

  26. Matt,
    Do you know any place with compositional data? I’m interested in all the usuals, but especially in pigments (incl. flavonoids) and sodium. You didn’t happen to look at KB, did you?
    I suppose I can probably find the info somewhere, but maybe you know: what is the pigment I can rub off the stems of tomato plants? I noticed as a child that working with the plants causes a bright yellow-green to appear when you apply soap to your hands.
    And this is for Eric:
    The secret for seed processing for lots of things is a Victorio Strainer with every size screen. It’s the perfect tool to process 10kg of tomatoes quickly and easily into seed-concentrate ready for fermentation. There’s a lot of this saucy stuff that comes out the side, but you can probably figure-out a way to dispose of that.

  27. uhhhhh…. i really feel like i read somewhere what that yellow-green pigment is. i want to say i saw it in the trichome literature. maybe it’ll come to me…
    At any rate, I didn’t grow KB and can’t think of any databases of heirloom tomato metabolite composition – though there’s lots of great info on flavonoids, etc. in tomatoes in general. For example, the USDA has a food composition database that shows how much of different chemicals (quercetin, kaempferol, etc.) are in different tomato market classes/products. You can learn a lot just by googling along the lines of “lc/ms and tomato,” though I don’t think you’ll find much on any specific heirloom. The expectation seems to be that almost all differences in tomato taste come down to sugar concentration, acidity and the ratio between them. Maybe there’re some important volatile differences among heirlooms, but I only looked at LC not GC/MS. Based on flavonoids, alkaloids, other phenylpropanoids, etc. all the heirloom and commercial tomatoes in my study looked pretty similar.

  28. Matt,
    Thanks; I’ll keep looking though; I have lots of spare time, after all….
    The flavonoid is apparently just quercetin/rutin: http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1111/j.1365-313X.2010.04154.x/pdf. I guess I can check-off item #756373 of the “list of things to look-up.” I think I can identify the “tomato smell” terpenes(?) here too.
    Also see http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1111/j.1365-2621.1979.tb10005.x/abstract. (Rutin colour stabilization)(I’m also interested in metals as colour stabilizers)….
    And here is an amusing bit of fractured English on the topic: http://www.naturalherbalextracts.com/Natural-Colors/Radish-Red.html (pelargonidin)

  29. Matt,
    I have no idea who that is; I have, for years, wanted info on of odourants and essential-oil components, and this is really the only site I’ve found (besides Katzer’s at http://www.uni-graz.at/~katzer/engl/spice_over.html#top)
    There’s a lot of analyses of oils scattered in the ethnobotany literature, but I’m interested in what the main characteristic constituents are for each particular odouriferous source (not just a list of the first 1000 detected), a rough description of the constituents’ perceptible qualities, and some kind of relative-potency measure. Not necessarily all from the same place. I’m also interested in pigments, toxins/toxicity, and things like the numbing/burning stuff in Zanthoxylum (http://www.bojensen.net/ says “sanshools”). Yeah, it’s a great site.
    Otherwise, I think the enormously profitable fragrances industry (flavourings, perfumes) is pretty secretive. Do you remember the “Bertie Bott’e Every Flavor Bean” jellybeans that were made as a promotional product? WHERE did they get the (presumably artificial, but quite convincing [and accurate, I’m somewhat embarassed to relate]) vomit, bacon, soil, black pepper, earthworm, and soap flavours? Were these just formulae sitting on some developer’s shelf waiting for a use? (BTW, the bacon and black pepper ones are actually excellent.)
    I have found a tropical plant AT HOME that has an unique, compelling and penetrating floral odor. If I were to enfleurage-up some absolute, nobody would guess whence I got it (especially if the plant were out-of-season). Had I a contact in the fragrance industry, I might be able to demonstrate and disclose and get a bit of lucre.

  30. I bet you’re right about the encyclopedia of volatile chemistry trade secrets contained in the fragrance industry. I’d think it’d be very easy to identify and manufacture your chemical – just use one of those GC/MS machines with a smell-o-scope, concentrate whatever comes off the column at the point that you smell the right scent and have the chemist give you the structure. It’d probably be some simple terpene that the fragrance chemists would have no problem synthesizing…
    Maybe some industry insider or chem ecologist professor will read this and throw money at you to reveal the species 😉

  31. While I’m thinking about it, let me point-out that the Fragrance industry still pays a LOT to beachcombers who find ambergris (http://www.scientificamerican.com/article.cfm?id=strange-but-true-whale-waste-is-valuable).
    And what would the food and cosmetics ppl pay for a natural, but non-animal (cochineal, carmine) true-red pigment (an aurone)? http://www.sciencenews.org/pages/pdfs/data/1998/153-25/15325-15.pdf
    Anyway, I visited the University of Heidelburg Botanical Garden on vacation, and they were all excited that I showed interest in their Nesocodons, tried to get me to take some home (and BOY would that have gotten me in trouble at the border!)
    And I’m sure the modereatator will greb this….

  32. OrchidGrowinMan,
    Your proposals appear to be ideal projects for genetic engineering. Which unfortunately makes them impossible for you, unless you win the Powerball Lottery twice in a row or something like that and are willing to wait for a decade after you develop a successful event, and pay private security guards during the interim.

  33. Eric,
    Eh,if Nesocodon CAN make the pigment, then maybe a mutant could be identified that expresses it excessively, like “purple-leaf plum” and other anthocyanin-excessive mutants. It’s been done before! Aurones should be no different? We don’t have to say how we got so many mutants in a short span….
    But that’s not the best example: we already have the wonderful “Radish Red”! (http://www.naturalherbalextracts.com/Natural-Colors/Radish-Red.html)(However, the hue and pH response aren’t perfect.)
    My employer could easily afford to set-up a lab for me, and some expert assistants (ASSUMING I would be in charge of anything at all), but until a lot of things change (including PR/Public Acceptance, our areas of expertise, and our business model), that’s not going to happen. In fact I’m sure it never will. I’ll go buy some Lotto tickets right now.
    For myself, I’m interested in breeding with “possibilities”: if a plant CAN make a substance, breeding for enhanced expression is the way to go. If a plant has “hot expression”, then maybe a it can be given something else to express. (CaMV promoter, all by itself, should be a wonderful tool if a path is already available to express.) An example: Oncidium ornithorhynchum makes a powerful, but not very pleasant fragrance. It is grandparent to one of the most common hybrids around today, O. ‘Sharry Baby’, which is also powerful (like Grandma), but brings-in a different fragrance profile to be expressed, and is hugely successful as the clone “Sweet Fragrance”, even featured in the movie http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0145893/
    Bringing us around, if I knew a particular tomato cultivar produced a particular fragrance chemical, even in small imperceptible quantities, AND that’s a note I’d like to have in my “garden,” I’d be wise to consider adding it to the program. Heirlooms (including wild-collections) are the place to look for such things. Emerson said it first though.

  34. So do you work for a natural products company, OrchidGrowinMan? What do you do?
    As far as the genetic engineering goes, I’m skeptical of our current ability to do much metabolomic engineering without great expense. I wonder though if it might be relatively straightforward to find some common source of a molecule very similar to your target chemical and then use synthetic chemistry tricks to convert it?
    Of course the easiest solution I think is like you said – find some plant already producing it and try to crank up the gain.

  35. Matt,
    Your jaw would drop if I told you where I (primarily) work and what I (primarily) do; I am careful not to divulge. I would get in SO much trouble! I’m supposed to be grinding away in the lab, or writing new procedures, not making an enormous footprint on-line. I also keep different personae for different topics so that exposure is compartmentalized, so maybe I’m just a big stinking poseur. OTOH, I’ve learned an awful lot of stuff, and hope that I contribute something.

  36. I have a project where I’m attempting to overexpress a native protein by using a cisgenic construct including the native gene but with another native but much higher expressing promoter. It seems to be working pretty well.

  37. I am sorry about the issues with commenting. Karl was trying out some code but has since removed it so that shouldn’t be a problem. If you sign up (still totally anon and all that good stuff) as a user then your comments should be auto approved regardless of link number.

  38. I love the cisgenic concept – mostly because it implies that we can actually control stuff subtly instead of just inserting foreign genes cranked to 11. I think it was at PAG two years ago where some (USDA?) scientists were describing their work to make a complete binary plasmid system with native (rice?) sequences.
    It seems that we’re not quite there when it comes to coordinating entire biosynthetic pathways though (wasn’t artemesenin almost impossible to biosynthesize?). Do you have reason to think otherwise?

  39. Anastasia,
    Now THAT’s what I’m talking about! Even better if you can just duplicate an indigenous promoter! (yes, that’s the right word.)
    Do we have any idea what’s going-on with natural overexpressors like “Purple-Leaf Plum”? If overproduction of an early intermediate drives the whole anthocyanin system, then that may be applicable in lots of places. If it’s due to a defect in the stress-response (anthocyanins for UV protection), then there’s limited applicability.
    Of course, this could be used in other ways too: the Monsanto system for glyphosate sensitivity only in corn tassels implies they’ve got an organ-specific promoter; imagine the possibilities! I can imagine systemic expression of an introduced gene, or systemic overexpression of an indigenous one, being fatal to the plant or its reproductive capability, but if the new function can be turned-on only in the production field, or at a certain time, or in only part of the plant, that could be avoided.

  40. Not long ago, neo-Luddites in Great Britain destroyed a field trial of potatoes genetically modified with the insertion of a gene from potatoes — which is, if I understand aright — is cisgenesis.
    We live in a global society where anti-global activists largely determine which technologies globally are ‘white magic’ and which are ‘the other color’ magic.

  41. OrchidGrowinMan,
    From experience which is wise for me not to divulge, I could recount a fair number of instances where researchers, regulators, and others, in the field of agro biotech, were targeted for removal from their jobs. Many of which were disastrously close to succeeding. So I’m definitely with you on that issue.

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