Bill Gates brushes up on plant sex

Bill Gates recounts a recent visit to Cornell University, a leader in research on improving crops.

Cornell’s work on crop improvement also involves a lot of cutting-edge genetics. You might see the words “crop improvement” and “genetics” in the same sentence and think I’m talking about GMOs. Although Melinda and I do support research in that area—we don’t think poor farmers should be denied the choice to use any tools that might benefit them—the work I saw at Cornell is different. It’s focused on how the science of genetics can improve agriculture in other ways. And the advances are really exciting.

He goes on to report on the genetics work being done at Cornell that will halve the time in takes to develop new, better-performing crops.

Getting there takes three steps. One is to understand the crop’s genetic makeup. Ed took me on a short tour of a lab where machines called sequencers were analyzing DNA from thousands of plants. They were mapping the genes that give each plant its physical traits: its height, color, etc.
The second step is to go into the field and record those physical traits for each individual plant whose genes you’re studying. Cornell researchers are growing hundreds of acres of corn and other crops not far from campus, and they make regular treks out there to collect data. Unfortunately, I didn’t have time for a field trip on this visit.
Finally, you build a computer model that puts the two together—the genetic maps of individual plants, along with the data about their physical traits.


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