Finito! Sort of…

Right now, the moment this post has become available on the blog, I will be sound asleep. After 26 straight days of getting up early to make controlled pollinations with corn plants, I, along with a dozen and a half of my fellow field crewmates, are enjoying our first weekend day off. This field season has not been too bad, though, perhaps the most enjoyable of the three that I have experienced.

Could I be getting used to this whole plant breeder thing? Am I finally able to get to sleep at a reasonable time with regularity so that I’m not tired and groggy all day? Or am I instead sticking to a rigorous schedule of washing my long-legged and sleeved field clothes and applying sunscreen religiously every day while also wearing a wide-brimmed hat to keep from toasting my outer layer of cells with UV radiation? The answer to all these questions is yes. I excercised my agency to the fullest to make sure that I survived the field pollination season unscathed, but there were also structural reasons why this year was not so bad.

First, the organization was better. My ventilated hat is off to professor Natalia de Leon who kept the operation going full steam, and to the heirarchical arrangement of field fiefdoms. It was efficient to have 560 rows of my own to manage in one block, and report on its progress and whether I would need assistance on any particular day.

Second, there were fewer plants to pollinate. The Maize Genetics community has it’s own version of Big Science akin to the particle accelerators of physics, and this is known as the Nested Association Mapping (NAM) population. Several schools around the country (and the world) growing thousands of lines of corn derived from crossing 25 important inbreds that comprise most of the genetic diversity of maize with one reference inbred plant, followed by self-pollinations for several generations. This project gives maize geneticists the ability to associate traits with parts of the maize genome in a massive, massive scale.

Last year, we had to pollinate a big field of the NAMs, and thankfully this year we only had to increase a few of those lines. Our field this year had 14 seeds planted in each little row, and 70 rows stacked up next to each other in a range. 30 of these ranges were arranged in each field, and the group I was in had two fields. The other group had one field that was almost twice the size of ours. Sound like something a dozen and a half people could pollinate one plant at a time in 26 days? Adding the NAMs shouldn’t be too much more, right? Double it again. I think someone tried to count the days we spent out there in the hot humid Madison summer of ’08, and it was around 40 days! This was after I just got married, too! (Actually, that got me out of a week)

So thankfully it was just the nursery fields again. But there was one more important factor that really made this season more survivable – the weather. Madison has been having an uncannily cool summer. We had one week of hot, humid weather in the 90’s back in June of July, and since then it has been in the 70s and 80s, dropping to the 60s at night often enough to be downright enjoyable. Heck, for a week it felt like a California Winter it was so cold. Thanks, God El niño!

Spending a long day in the field from 7 am to 5:30 at the peak, sometimes with a trip to the lab to drop off tissue samples, other times to run a sequencing reaction to keep the research going, it can really make it hard to do anything else in the evening at all. And I’m usually the one that cooks dinner at home, so my next thanks go to Ariela for volunteering to handle most of the evening food prep for the busy weeks! And on the topic of food, I’m proud to announce that I made it all the way through field season without once buying lunch – a combination of leftovers, fruit, homemade turkey lunchmeat, and a stack of peanut butter and honey sandwiches kept the financial impact of this greuling work to a minimum. It is so easy to drag yourself out to the field empty-handed and give up on Chipotle or Burger King to get you through the rest of the day.

(Meanwhile I lost about 7 more pounds this year. All from my head, I assure you!)

Now it is time to get back to work on sequencing, analyzing samples I took in the field, and dropping out there to pick up one or two pollinations from late-blooming plants. The sweaty trudge through muddy rows of corn is all over for this year… or is it? An email in my inbox indicates the upcoming schedule for measuring phenotypes on a yet larger field of corn north of here. Huh boy, what did I get myself into?

Oh yeah, its called SCIENCE!

Meanwhile, Anastasia has been going for a blogging marathon on Genetic Maize, and she picked the perfect word to describe being out in the field: Meditative. She turned her thoughts made while wandering corn rows in Iowa into a few posts, check them out. I, too, have done a bit of thinking, and using brief lunches to pull up resources online to explore those ideas further, I have stacked up a neat little pile of science-related expressions that I will soon lay out on this blog and at Biofortified. And I have a super-secret project that shall soon be revealed. You could find it with some skilled Google searches, but why spoil the surprise?

After I finish sleeping in to the late late hour of, say, 9, I’ll have a long day of putting my feet up and sifting through the thoughts that have been piling up in my mind, and casting them into the intertubes.


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Karl Haro von Mogel

Karl Haro von Mogel serves as BFI’s Director of Science and Media and as Co-Executive Editor of the Biofortified Blog. He has a PhD in Plant Breeding and Plant Genetics from UW-Madison with a minor in Life Sciences Communication. He is currently a Postdoctoral Scholar researching citrus genetics at UC Riverside.