Scott Baker had no idea that when he agreed to participate in the making of The Cove, a documentary about a dolphin slaughter in Japan, that the movie would win an Academy Award. Neither did he expect to find as much evidence of traffic in endangered whales when he analyzed DNA from purchases made in Asian meat markets. Science has led the associate director of Oregon State University’s Marine Mammal Institute down unexpected paths.
Surprise is a constant companion for scientists on the frontier of their fields. In A Feeling for the Organism, her stirring biography of Nobel prize-winning geneticist Barbara McClintock, Evelyn Fox Keller wrote: “The miracle of life is that, despite the best grip we can get on reality, it continuously manages to surprise us. The beauty of science is that, notwithstanding all our tacit assumptions, these surprises can get through.”
Keller reflects on the resistance and hostility that McClintock endured when she developed a theory to explain the appearance of new traits in corn plants. The conventional wisdom in the 1950s was that genes — poorly understood, much like the cosmological concept of “dark energy” today — were nevertheless stable, fixed in place, immutable. McClintock’s idea that they could move from one chromosome to another during cell division was not understood or welcomed by others in her field.
How far we have come in plant genetics and biotechnology. We have complete genome sequences for rice, corn and a wild species known as Brachypodium (a model species that OSU geneticist Todd Mockler calls the fruit fly of plant genetics). Through the work of OSU scientist Jim Carrington and others, we know that plants and viruses engage in molecular fencing matches through mechanisms that silence genes.
New knowledge is emerging from biotechnology labs at OSU and other institutions at a dizzying pace, and plant breeders, farmers and educators need new tools to make use of it. The Gramene database is a promising example. One of its architects, OSU molecular biologist Pankaj Jaiswal, describes Gramene as a bridge between those who study genes and breeders whose eyes are on the plants we’ll need to avert food shortages in a changing world.
We still have a few things to learn about plants. Why does it take weeks for some species to go from seed to flower while others can take as long as 40 years? How can we benefit from disease resistance traits that plants have evolved through eons of evolution with microbes? No doubt, researchers will find plenty of surprises along the way. What an exciting time to be a scientist.