Open-Source Seeds Fight Corporate Crop Control

For Earth Day, gardeners can order open-source seeds to help ensure vegetable, fruit and grain seeds are available to everyone.

For Earth Day, gardeners can help ensure vegetable, fruit and grain seeds remain available to everyone by ordering a set of open-source seeds from the University of Wisconsin – Madison. Gardeners and farmers can save open-source seeds after harvest and pass the plants on for generations. Breeders can use the open-source crops to develop new varieties.

Most new crop varieties result from elaborate breeding programs or expensive genetic engineering techniques. Legal measures prohibit or limit farmers' and gardeners' abilities to save and replant those crops' seeds. Intellectual property rights and patents also block breeders from using those plants to create new varieties. Some sociologists, agronomists and food-security activists worry that patenting plants makes farmers dependent on corporations for their seeds and limits regional innovation.

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"Already, many public breeders don't have the freedom to operate," said Jack Kloppenburg, UW-Madison sociologist and one of the founders of the Open Source Seed Initiative, in a press release. "They can't do what they want to do as often as they would like."

UM-Madison's Open Source Seed Initiative aims to keep some crop varieties available to the public forever. Last week, the group released 29 new varieties of crops, including celery, sweet peppers, barley, carrots and others. Four distinct varieties of the hipster's favorite leafy green, kale, were part of the release.

The Open Source Seed Initiative recently began taking pre-orders for an assortment of 15 seed packets. Crops varieties in the assortment include Midnight Lightning zucchini, Red Ursa kale, Gatherer's Gold pepper and Joker Lettuce. The seeds are certified organic.

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The Initiative uses a simple pledge printed on the seed packet to ensure the plants remain available to the public. By opening the packet, the user acknowledges that the seeds can't be legally protected and can be used freely for breeding, crop production or any other purposes.

Pictured is a variety of Brassica crops, including cauliflower, Brussels sprouts, cabbage and kale.

Seen here close-up under a dissecting microscope, the flowering plant

Amborella trichopoda

is the oldest known existing species of petal-bearing plants on Earth. Now in a series of reports published today in the journal Science, molecular geneticists have unlocked the genomic secrets of

Amborella

, and with it clues as to why flowers display such successful genetic diversity.

Many of

Amborella

's genes were distinct from those of non-flowering plants. In its mitochondrial DNA, which tends to change less than nuclear DNA,

Amborella

showed a shared affiliation with mosses and green algae. Biologist Danny W. Rice of Indiana University and his team hypothesize that wounded

Amborella

plants obtained the shared mitochondrial genomes as a result of horizontal gene transfer between these other organisms it was living in close proximity with millions of years ago. Here,

Amborella

genomic DNA is shown in blue, chloroplast DNA in green, and mitochondrial DNA in red.

Indeed, the team discovered that

Amborella

's mitochondrial genome provides the largest example of horizontal gene transfer – the acquisition of foreign genes from other species – in any organism. Shown here are male flowers of

Amborella

.

The Indiana University team -- working with biologists from the U.S. Department of Energy, Penn State University, and the Institute of Research for Development in New Caledonia -- showed for the first time that an organelle genome has captured an entire foreign genome, in this case, four of them: three green algae and one moss. It is also the first description of a land plant acquiring genes from green algae. Shown here are female flowers of

Amborella

.

"The

Amborella

mitochondrial genome is like the old lady in the song who swallows a fly, and then a spider, a bird, a cat, and so on, all the way to a horse, at which point, finally, "she's dead of course," said co-author of the study Jeff Palmer, a Distinguished Professor in the Indiana University Bloomington College of Arts and Sciences' Department of Biology. Shown here are

Amborella

female flowers and fruits.

"Likewise, the

Amborella

genome has swallowed whole mitochondrial genomes, of varying sizes, from a broad range of land plants and green algae. But instead of bursting from all this extra, mostly useless DNA, or purging the DNA, it's held on to it for tens of millions of years. So you can think of this genome as a constipated glutton, that is, a glutton that has swallowed whole genomes from other plants and algae and also retained them in remarkably intact form for eons," said Palmer in a press release. Shown here are

Amborella

in fruit.

View from the summit of Mt. Aoupine, New Caledonia. The flowering

Amborella

, whose mitochondrial genome is amazingly rich in foreign genes and even genomes, is endemic to the island of New Caledonia. The research on

Amborella

shows "compelling evidence that mitochondrial fusion is the driving force for mitochondrial gene transfer and that incompatibility in the mechanism of mitochondrial fusion between different phyla – plants versus animals or fungi – provides the major barrier to unconstrained mitochondrial 'sex' across the evolutionary tree of life," said Palmer.

The southwest-Australian Christmas tree,

Nuytsia floribunda

, which parasitizes the roots of grasses to obtain water and minerals. This parasite belongs to the group of parasitic plants (Santalales) from which the

Amborella

mitochondrial genome has captured many foreign genes by horizontal gene transfer.

A parasitic flowering plant (

Amyema scandens

) blooming in New Caledonia from its epicortical roots, which, like mistletoe, grow along the branch of its host tree. This parasite belongs to the same group of parasitic plants (Santalales) from which the

Amborella

mitochondrial genome has captured many foreign genes.

A parasitic flowering plant (

Hachettea austro-caledonica

) emerging from the ground to flower. This plant parasitizes the roots of other flowering plants and belongs to the group of parasitic plants (Santalales) from which the

Amborella

mitochondrial genome has captured many foreign genes. Picture taken in New Caledonia, the South Pacific island on which both

Amborella

and

Hachettea

are endemic.