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Plant Wizards

Published in the six Nashoba Publishing papers on Friday, 5 April 2002

Geniuses of plant research: do they have a special empathy for plants? Perhaps so, but what makes their work useful is careful observation. They pay attention.

Barbara McClintock (1902 - 1992) studied the chromosomes of maize, the colorful Indian corn which shows so much variation in kernel color. Looking through the microscope lens, she saw patterns where others saw too much information to make sense of; then she figured out what made those patterns. Like Einstein, she would hold the complexity of the problem in her mind, until, in her own words, "suddenly you know the answer." Her insight into the principles controlling variation was beyond the grasp of most of her contemporaries, but at the end of her life new discoveries in genome mapping finally began to catch up with her.

Luther Burbank (1849 - 1926), inspired by the work of Charles Darwin, saw its implications for breeding plants. Starting on seventeen acres in Lunenburg, he discovered the Idaho potato, and with the proceeds from its sale bankrolled his move to California, where he conducted massive breeding programs that produced hundreds of new, startlingly useful and desirable varieties of fruit and ornamental plants. When he titled his little 1893 catalog "New Creations in Plant Life," horticulturalists were outraged ... but eventually had to retract their criticism, because Burbank proved his claims.

George Washington Carver (1864 - 1943), born in slavery, was largely responsible for the economic recovery of the South after the Civil War. Tobacco and cotton had depleted the soil; he developed crop rotation with soil-enriching peanuts, peas, sweet potato, soybeans and pecans. To make these crops attractive, he analyzed their component substances, and from this information invented over 500 practical uses: from paper and plastic; axle grease and chili sauce; to printer's ink, instant coffee, linoleum, mayonnaise, shoe polish... and peanut butter.

Jagadis Chandra Bose (1858 - 1937), India's pioneering physicist and plant physiologist, is credited with discovering fatigue in metals and contributing to the development of microwave technology. Few remember his discovery of the similarities between the reactions of metals, plants and animals to electromagnetic radiation — or his invention of supersensitive monitoring devices that show instant plant response to fertilizer, light, carbon dioxide, and other stimuli.

Science-fiction nut that I am, I wonder what we may learn from extra-terrestrials some day. But when I read about the work of these people, I realize we have a lot to learn still from paying attention to the plant life in our back yards.

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© Copyright 2002 Catherine Holmes Clark