I’ll never forget the colleague, a lady plant breeder, who, while inspecting row after row of late season petunia trials for signs of botrytis resistance, looked up from her stud records and sighed, “I just love being pregnant – if I could, I’d be pregnant all the time”.
She revealed on another occasion – I honestly cannot recall the contexts of our subsequent conversations – the reason men have breasts. “RNA, George. Cytoplasmic inheritance, you know, you guys are all more female than you are male.” She continued beating out golden plates of wisdom for the many years we worked together.
Another breeder, a famous university professor, labored over a large group of several dozen inbred lines of potato plants that he continuously reproduced in his greenhouse for many years. He was trying to transfer the genetic resistance to a rare disease from the wild plants into a domesticated variety. He used to talk to the plants, like to an imaginary friend, sharing professional and personal problems, and listening to baseball games on the radio as he worked. This went on for almost two decades. Still, he was unable to achieve a fertile cross between them. He was preparing to abandon the project when he had a mild emotional breakdown. Occasionally, he’d visit the greenhouse, sobbing miserably. After he recovered, he decided to give the plants another try before shutting them down. He announced to his students and fellow faculty that the plants were going to be destroyed unless the next test crosses “took”, as they say, or reproduced. Sure enough, a few of the plants suddenly, and for no apparent reason, became fertile and produced offspring possessing the exact traits he sought. For many years he insisted – and most of us believed – that the plants “heard” him, not in any audible way, but as a result of the years of gentle but specific force he had exerted on them. Geneticists call this “selection pressure”. In the wild, biological evolution takes millions of years. Several of his students told me, after he retired, that he confessed that it was the strangest and most wonderful experience he’d ever had as a scientist – a miracle, in fact.
I have no talent for plant breeding. The three projects I undertook over the years – coffee, sweet peppers and petunias – went bust. However, I discovered I had a bit of a knack for research management, which is something like hospital administration. For example, surgeons need a relatively unfettered environment, what the Harvard Business School calls “loose-tight” controls. Over the years I’ve learned that the best salesperson usually makes a mediocre sales manager. So it is with doctors – although there are exceptions – and plant breeders as well. While aptitudes vary widely, clusters of them point to particular areas of success, and “square pegs don’t fit into round holes”. So it is also with plant adaptation – gentleness is essential.