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Bill Gates’s New Obsession: Plain Old Boring Plant Sex

Forget GMOs. Regular plant breeding is having its own high-tech growth spurt.

Bill Gates’s New Obsession: Plain Old Boring Plant Sex
[Photo: Robert Barker]

Bill Gates gets a lot of flack for his support of genetically modified crops (GMOs), but these days he’s interested in good old-fashioned plant sex.

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In a blog post on his site , the Microsoft founder and philanthropist discusses his visit to Cornell University, where he learned about the current state of plant genetics research.

He writes:

Here’s how it works today. Suppose you want a variety of corn with a natural resistance to a certain pest. You start by planting as much corn as you can. You wait 8 to 12 weeks for it to grow, and then you take pollen from some of the plants that aren’t infested and use it to pollinate others. If the offspring of those plants is pest-resistant, you’re in luck–your plant won the genetic lottery. If not, you have to start over. Because you’re limited by the growing season, the process can take seven to ten years.

Genetics research will cut that time in half.

The genetics research that Gates is referring to involves computer modeling of plant biology combined with detailed data about physical traits like height and color. As Gates explains:

Once you have that model, you no longer need to cross two plants and just hope for the best. You can ask the computer, “Out of all the plants I have in my field, which two should I breed in order to produce one that is pest-resistant?” Think of it as a highly sophisticated Match.com for plants.

Along with other funders, the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation is sponsoring work on the genetics of cassava, a root vegetable and staple crop in a number of countries. According to Gates, farmers in Nigeria and Uganda are growing cassava, recording traits found in different plants, and sending plant samples to Cornell, where they can be sequenced and ultimately used to develop new and hardier varieties. There isn’t really any new science involved in the process; it just harnesses data more effectively.

Check out the full Gates Notes post here.

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About the author

Ariel Schwartz is a Senior Editor at Co.Exist. She has contributed to SF Weekly, Popular Science, Inhabitat, Greenbiz, NBC Bay Area, GOOD Magazine and more

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