About the Project

When we save seeds, we pass on valuable plant genes that will aid the health and persistence of future plant generations. But that’s not all we are passing on. Packed tightly among the plant’s cells reside many thousands of cells and spores from bacteria and fungi, which will grow alongside and within the developing plant.

My research seeks to explore this exciting, unexplored area of the plant microbiome by focusing on the seed. Many of these seed borne microbes are much more than incidental hitchhikers, but have forged long-term alliances with their towering plant companions. In exchange for an exclusive, energy-rich habitat within the plant, many of these microbes increase the health and resilience of the plant host.

Seed-borne fungi and bacteria can benefit the plant in many ways, including:

-Resistance against plant pathogens

-Nitrogen fixation within the plant

-Protection against herbivores

-General increase in growth rate

-Resilience against drought and other extreme weather patterns

History of seeds

Seeds are the foundation of our entire food system.  Without giving special care to seeds, our ancestors would not have been able to guide plant evolution to make agriculture a worthwhile lifestyle for humans. In fact, in English, the word “seed” (sed) only came after the verb “to sow” (sawan), which illustrates the fundamental importance of the act of planting. Over the years, we have seen a shift of sowing seed, from a highly diverse, decentralized activity, to one that is dominated globally by a handful of companies that produce the seed to be sown. There used to be as many seed varieties as there were human cultures and natural landscapes. With the centralization of our seed production comes the striking disappearance of the vast majority of our seed diversity – some estimates report that over 90% of agricultural diversity has gone extinct in the U.S. (75% globally, according to the FAO).  With the loss of these seeds, we lose valuable genetic information and wisdom accumulated over many generations, and therefore we have decreasing potential to adapt our crops to changing ecosystems, pathogens, and climates.

Seeds have also been formative in our understanding of genes. Gregor Mendel (1822-1884), the father of modern genetics, experimented with generations of pea plants to discover that  each plant contains fundamental units of instructions that are inherited generation to generation in the seeds, such as red or white flower color.  Utilizing this scientific imperative, plant breeders have sought to isolate the very genes that cause certain desirable plant traits, such as a gene that causes high yield or resistance to a certain disease. Over the years, we have found that Mendel’s model of 1 gene  = 1 trait is far more of an exception than the rule. As our crops continue to fall to weeds, diseases, and weather, breeders are expanding the search for genes to protect them against the elements.  New technologies allow us to scan the entire genome for areas that are statistically associated with certain desirable traits, which means that breeding efforts are now devoted to coordinating the actions of multiple genes to get the desired result. Additionally, biotech has been putting foreign genes into our crops in a standard practice that society finds both dazzling and disturbing. Since the advent of genetic revolution in the 1900’s, seeds seem to represent little more than packets of genetic information.

Beyond genetic inheritance

The aim of my research is to explore the role of microorganisms in the breeding and evolution of our crops. Microorganisms bring a missing ecological dimension to our breeding efforts, when we understand that the traits of a plant are not only governed by its genes, but by its intimate interactions with its diverse microflora. Try as we might, we cannot separate plants from the microbes with which they have co-evolved for millions of years. Once discarded as “contaminants”, or environmental “noise” that gets in the way of “pure” plant science, plant-associated microbes are increasingly recognized as an essential piece of the plant’s story. Moreover, these microbes force us to consider the ecological forces that are setting the stage for their interactions with plants. We must call into question the ecosystems in which we are breeding these plants. Should these plants be bred in “controlled” environments without regard to their complex ecologies, or should we take seriously the ecological context of plant breeding? Are there general interactions between plants and microbes that can and should be packaged and sold across the world, or should plant breeding efforts necessarily be local and distributed, as they were historically?

We still have a lot to learn about the role of seed-borne organisms in our agriculture, and the nature or their inheritance. However, their presence within seeds calls into question the convention of treating seeds to remove pathogens, and force us to consider our seed storage and seed germination environments. We can be certain that seeds appear to pass on far more information than their genes alone.

Proposed and Ongoing Experiments

About Me

3 comments on “About the Project

  1. Madeline says:

    I am excited about your project. I have grown Cascade Ruby Gold and Lavendar parching corn for the last 2 years, I would be interested to know how growing it it in Ireland, changes its microbes and genetics. Let me know if you would like any of my seeds. http://www.brownenvelopeseeds.com

  2. Joy Phillips says:

    Facinating research Lucas!

    I have been living in Australia the last 21 years and in Tasmania for the past 17 years (it’s the beautiful island south of the Australian ‘mainland’.)

    I would love to partake in this grow-out but would need to get seeds through quarantine as I would need phytosantiary certificiate that seeds are grown in an area free of corn smut etc. Do you know if Carol and Sarah/Andrew in an area/situation of being ‘clean’ of these type of diseases?

    I went to a seed growers workshop hosted by Adaptive Seed/OSA last year (as well as another one run by OSA up at Oxbow Farm in WA).

    Literally 5 minutes down the road I have a lovely lady running a microbre brewing/amendment business (as well as in the process of building educational facilities. So she may be able to help with measurements etc as I obvioulsy don’t have any of that specialised equipment…)

    No worries if this is too difficult to get seeds to me. I’ll continue to keenly check out how this develops with others in the research closer to you.


    PS Our island state had a moritorumn on any GMO crops put in place 15 or 16 years ago. BUT last year our state govt voted to make it an indefinite Ban on GMO crops for Tasmania. Yippee!!

    I’ve had a concern after travelling the East and West coasts last year, that there are seeds being grown out, which have unknowingly been crossed with GMO (ie corn, beets, brassicas). Have you done any research into this or know of others who have? It seems to be an elephant in the room in the organic world but well worth the discussion so particular lines can be isolated and maintain some purity from GMO contamination… I’d love to participate in a program focused on this too as I’m in a prime spot to be isolated from any GMO contimation (that is, as long as they are ‘clean’ to begin with…)

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