The future of hybridizing has already begun; we soon will see the transformation of Nature’s ancient methods, and the rapid introduction of amazing new cultivars.
The basic method for creating new varieties of ornamental and edible plants has been practiced by bees and other pollinators for a very, very long time. This approach, called crossbreeding, involves sexual propagation: fertilizing one plant with the pollen of another plant produces seeds that carry the traits of the two plants. When the seeds germinate, the next generation of plants shows combinations of the traits of their two parents.
Plant hybridization has advanced greatly since 1900, when modern genetics began on the basis of Gregor Mendel’s work, but still follows the natural process. Rather than combining plants randomly, like bees, human hybridizers try to combine the traits of two plants to produce hybrid plants that are better than either parent. With ornamental plants, for example, a hybrid’s blossoms might be larger, more attractively colored, more numerous, etc.
This process requires time for seeds to germinate, develop into new plants and reproduce to produce a marketable number of hybrids. Often the majority—or all— of the seedlings do not equal the hybridizer’s vision, and are discarded, so that the process begins again.
Genetic researchers recently have developed ways to hybridize plants faster and with greater control than has been possible with the bees’ method. The new approach uses “genetic marking,” a technique to identify the gene or gene combination that results in a desirable trait in the plant.
The modern hybridizer then crossbreeds plants with desirable traits, grows the resulting seeds, and analyzes the genes in the hybrid to determine if it exhibits the desired trait(s).
A second, related development is the seed chipper, a device that determines if seeds will produce plants with desired traits. This process of “breeding without breeding” greatly speeds conventional hybridization.
Monsanto Company is pioneering the new methods for accelerating and controlling hybridization. These new methods do not involve transferring the genes from one species into another species so they differ from Monsanto’s highly controversial work in genetic engineering.
The new methods have been applied to vegetables: tomatoes, lettuce, peppers, broccoli and onions. Some “super produce” has already appeared in selected markets.
Given the progress of technology, we will see “super ornamentals” in the near future. Today, we can only speculate about how they will look and how they will grow.
New methods, new plants, and new questions!
Basic “how-to” descriptions of the traditional methods for hybridizing plants are readily available. Search the Internet for “hybridizing plants” or a similar phrase. The methods are really the same for all kinds of plants, but find information for specific plants by searching for “hybridizing roses,” inserting the plant name of interest.
For example, the article, “Try Your Hand at Hybridizing Irises,” appeared in Fine Gardening magazine, and was published originally in William Shear’s book The Gardener’s Iris Book (Taunton Press, 2002).
For more information on the new technology for hybridizing, see Ben Paynter’s article, “Monsanto Is Going Organic in a Quest for the Perfect Veggie,” in Wired Magazine, or “Monsanto’s Technology Platform in Wheat,” on the website of Monsanto Company. More detailed information on this technology is available on the Internet. Search Wikipedia or the Internet generally for “marker-assisted selection” or “molecular breeding.”