Crop Domestication

Prof. Lewis Lukens and PhD student Ann Meyer of the Department of Plant Agriculture examined why domestic crops have been so slow to take root. Their research, now published in the current issue of Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, revealed that the slower than expected evolution of domestic crops can be attributed to human culture and history--rather than genetics.

The history of crops can provide insight into how current plant varieties, from food to feed to fibre, came to be. Humans have been domesticating plants for agriculture for 10,000 years. Agriculture allowed populations to  establish permanent settlements, and led to the birth of civilization.

Lukens said that understanding past plant improvements should help with future agricultural efforts. A skyrocketing global population is putting pressure on global food production. Now, crops have to feed more people than ever before. Looking at the history of crop genetics could help farmers and breeders prepare for an increasing food demand in the future.

Lukens and Meyer worked in conjunction with biologists at Oklahoma State University and Washington State University. Luken's team, based out of the University of Guelph, analyzed data from previous studies on domesticated crop species, while the US team completed field experiments.

The researchers pinpointed genes controlling specific plant traits in order to see how the environment affects genes, and how genes interact with each other. Their original idea was that genetic factors hindered the transmission of genes. However, the opposite was shown: domestic traits were passed on without genetic interference.

Both teams concluded that the lagging adaptation of domestic plants was a result of factors like culture and history including: war, famine, and poor communication between farming populations. This ultimately counteracted and limited technological progress.

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