The sting was in the tail . . . or was it?

Sting in the tail. An unexpected, typically unpleasant or problematic end to something.

That’s what the Nawaz Sharif and his family has just found out. If you recall, Sharif was, until yesterday, Prime Minister of Pakistan.

Sharif and his family got caught up in the Panama Papers scandal that erupted in 2016, although they denied (as one might expect) all guilt or culpability. Nevertheless, Pakistan’s Supreme Court justices unanimously decided that Sharif should be excluded from office. Who would credit that a typeface would bring a political dynasty to its knees?

There was one rather unlikely source of evidence against the family that no-one could have anticipated. Among the documents presented by the family in its defence was one dated from 2006 and using one the Calibri fonts. Not a font with a tail on many of the characters. Unfortunately for the Sharifs, the date on the document pre-dated the commercial release of Calibri by Microsoft by some months. There was little chance that the document could be genuine.

I’m sure that’s the last thing anyone would have expected; it was unpleasant and problematic, and Fontgate (as it’s come to be known) has had far-reaching consequences. Here’s something I found on the endgadget website:

The documents from 2006 submitted by Maryam Nawaz (daughter of PM Nawaz Sharif) were in the Calibri font. That font, according to the investigation team’s leaked report, wasn’t publicly available until 2007 . . .

A cursory glance at the history of Calibri reveals it became the default font on Microsoft PowerPoint, Excel, Outlook, and WordPad in 2007. However, Microsoft’s website states that version 1.0 of the font was available to download separately as far back as 2005. And, according to font consultant Thomas Phinney, Calibri was also available as part of a Windows pre-release in 2004 . . . 

Pakistan’s leading English newspaper Dawn even reached out to Calibri creator Lucas de Groot, who seemed skeptical of the font’s use before its public release. “Why would anyone use a completely unknown font for an official document in 2006?” he questioned.

I have to admit that I’m a bit of a font geek, but I hadn’t realised that Sans Serif Calibri had become the default typeface for several Microsoft products. I use it all the time, Calibri 12 pt. Incidentally, check out a list of type designers here.

Sans Serif typefaces have become more popular in recent years, no doubt because of the Microsoft default font decision, although until the release of Calibri, Arial (and also Helvetica and Tahoma to some extent) was more commonly used. In earlier versions of Microsoft Word, maybe even Outlook (I don’t remember), the default was I believe Times New Roman (TNR). It’s a typeface that I find particularly ugly. Text appears, to my eyes at least, as rather cramped compared to others. I made a conscious decision to change the default in my Microsoft Office settings from TNR to something else.

When I was setting up the Office for Program Planning and Coordination (later Communications)—DPPC—at the International Rice Research Institute (IRRI) in 2001, I decided we should give all the documents sent to donor agencies (such as project proposals, reports, and the like) a distinctive look and ‘feel’. We felt it was important that IRRI documents stood out from others they might receive. At a glance, a document had to be recognised as one from IRRI, notwithstanding that we also placed the institute’s logo on the cover sheet, of course.

From the outset, I excluded Times New Roman (TNR) as the DPPC typeface, and of course Calibri was not available then. We chose Palatino Linotype 12 pt as our default font. It’s an elegant serif font, but more open, rounded even than Times New Roman. And I find it much easier to read than a document in TNR.

What do you think? Click on the text below in three different fonts: TNR 12, Palatino Linotype 12, and Calibri 12, justified and left justified.

The design and release of typefaces goes back centuries of course to the first experiments in printing in the 1400s. Digital printing has opened up many new avenues for design, as the work of Luc(as) de Groot shows.

I often check the typeface of the books I read, if that information is provided. Mostly it’s not, which for typeface geeks like me, is a pity. I’m halfway through a book about Jefferson Davis, the President of the Confederacy during the American Civil War in the 1860s. Titled Embattled Rebel, it’s by James M McPherson, George Henry Davis ’86 Professor of Hostory at Princeton University, and publsihed by Penguin Press in 2014. Not only is it well written, but Penguin chose a typeface and font that just adds to the overall reading enjoyment. Here’s a sample below.

Incidentally, the default font of the regular text in this Dusk to Dawn blog theme is Verdana, and PT Serif for the headings.

Returning to the original story, however, Sharif was caught out by a Sans Serif font. It was another sting in the tail, but not of the Serif kind. Maybe we should be talking about Nawaz Sharif as Nawaz (Sans) Serif instead.

Ten days, eleven states (4): It’s all in the branding

Everyone, every company and organization needs, it seems, a brand. A logo that identifies the brand, and a pithy slogan that suggests orientation, ethos, qualities, aspirations.

Take the International Rice Research Institute (IRRI) for example, where I worked for almost 19 years. It has a distinctive institution logo, in a defined font and font color, and a branding logo and slogan, that succinctly describes the objectives and mission of the institute: Rice Science for a Better World. I was a member (Chair perhaps, I don’t remember) of the committee that came up with this slogan, and my former colleagues in the Communication and Publications Service (CPS) under Ohioan Gene Hettel, then developed the clever logo below.

In the automobile industry, take Ford for example: Go Further . . .

or Nestlé as an example from the confectionery and food industry.

Branding is a real industry, and there’s a lot of ‘science’ behind adopting and deploying the right brand. Even cities get involved.

US states are not immune. As we travelled around the eleven states on our journey from Georgia to Minnesota in June this year, I took photographs of all the state signs at the state lines (except Kentucky – I had to find its brand logo elsewhere). Each of the eleven (with the exception of North Carolina, Missouri, and Minnesota) had a brief slogan to describe itself, such as Virginia is for Lovers, or Wild and Wonderful (West Virginia).


The one that caught my eye, however, and is (as far as I know) quite famous world-wide, is the Kentucky brand.

What an inspiration! Encapsulating, one would think, two of the things that Kentucky is most famous for: the breeding and racing of thoroughbred horses (viz. the Kentucky Derby) and the distillation of fine bourbon whisky.

But these were not, apparently, the ideas behind the brand. Kentucky Unbridled Spirit means that the state is a place where spirits are free to soar and big dreams can be fulfilled. We relish competition and cherish our champions for their willingness to push beyond conventional boundaries to reach new heights of success.

Kentucky has obviously thought in depth about branding. As it states on its website, and citing a Tufts University study, A brand’s purpose is twofold: One – it serves as a major tool to create product differentiation: and Two – it represents a promise of value. From a consumer’s viewpoint, a brand is – above all – a shortcut to a purchasing decision.

Read more about Kentucky’s branding decisions here. I still see racehorses and whisky, and that not so bad really.

A congregation of corvids

Collective nouns are wonderful.

Why, for example, would a group of carrion crows be known as a murder of crows? Then there’s a parliament of rooks, a mischief of magpies, and a train of jackdaws. Often there is more than one collective name, depending on local tradition and usage.

Isn’t it delightful? Just goes to show how colourful the English language can be.

Well, here are the four culprits, and three of them (magpie, carrion crow, and jackdaw) are becoming increasingly common—and noisy—in our suburban garden in northeast Worcestershire. Greedy magpies regularly visit our bird table; crows and jackdaws tend to shout at us from the surrounding roof tops.

Rooks have taken up residence in a small copse alongside the busy A38 by-pass less than a mile away.

Members of the crow family are large and quite striking birds, and rather intelligent. From time-to-time we see jays in the surrounding countryside. But as they are solitary compared to the other four already mentioned, I don’t think I’ve ever seen a scold of jays. The jay is a really handsome bird.

Three other corvids, the raven (a conspiracy), chough (a chattering) and hooded crow ( a MacMurder perhaps, as they are found in Scotland) are much more restricted in their distributions in the UK. I’ve only seen them on a few occasions. Once seen, the chough is never to be forgotten, with its shiny black plumage, reddish-orange curved beak, and legs and feet of the same colour.

So, this morning when I went outside to put some last minute pieces of rubbish in the bin before collection, there was this solitary crow letting rip at the top of its voice, giving me chapter and verse. And that got me thinking about how common they have become, but also the lovely collective nouns we employ to describe them.

Then, being an active member of the blogging fraternity, I did wonder what a collective noun might be. I came across a click of bloggers in one blog; here is a more extensive list of suggestions. Which one would you choose?

There’s beauty in numbers . . .

Now, what I want is, facts . . . Stick to the facts, sir!

Thus spoke businessman, MP, and school superintendent Thomas Gradgrind in the opening paragraph of Charles Dickens’ tenth novel, Hard Times, first published in 1854.

Increasingly however, especially on the right of the political spectrum, facts have become a debased currency. ‘Alternative facts’ and ‘fake news’ have become an ‘alternative religion’, faith-based and not susceptible to the norms of scientific scrutiny. Fake data are also be used as a ‘weapon’.

I am a scientist. I deal with facts. Hypotheses, observations, numbers, data, analysis, patterns, interpretation, conclusions: that’s what science is all about.

There really is a beauty in numbers, my stock-in-trade for the past 40 years: describing the diversity of crop plants and their wild relatives; understanding how they are adapted to different environments; how one type resists disease better than another; or how they can contribute genetically to breed higher-yielding varieties. The numbers are the building blocks, so to speak. Interpreting those blocks is another thing altogether.

Statistical analysis was part and parcel of my scientific toolbox. Actually, the application of statistics, since I do not have the mathematical skills to work my way through the various statistical methods from first principles. This is not surprising considering that I was very weak in mathematics during my high school years. Having passed the necessary examination, I intended to put maths to one side forever, but that was not to be since I’ve had to use statistics during my university education and throughout my career. And playing around with numbers, looking for patterns, and attempting to interpret those patterns was no longer a chore but something to look forward to.

So why my current obsession with numbers?

First of all, since Donald Trump took up residence in the White House (and during his campaign) numbers and ‘alternative facts’ featured prominently. Trump does not respect numbers. However, more of this later.

Second, I recently came across a scientific paper about waterlogging tolerance in lentils by a friend of mine, Willie Erskine, who is a professor at the University of Western Australia (although I first knew him through his work at ICARDA, a CGIAR center that originally had its headquarters in Aleppo, Syria). The paper was published last month in Genetic Resources and Crop Evolution. Willie and his co-authors showed that lentil lines did not respond in the same way to different waterlogging regimes, and that waterlogging tolerance was a trait that could be selected for in lentil breeding.

A personal data experience
While out on my daily walk a couple of days later, I mulling over in my mind some ideas from that lentil paper, and it reminded me of an MSc dissertation I supervised at The University of Birmingham in the 1980s. My student, Shibin Cai, came from the Institute of Food Crops, Jiangsu Academy of Agricultural Sciences, China where he worked as a wheat scientist.

Cai was interested to evaluate how wheat varieties responded to waterlogging. So, having obtained several wheat lines from the International Maize and Wheat Improvement Center (CIMMYT) in Mexico, we designed a robust experiment to evaluate how plants grew with waterlogging that was precisely applied at different critical stages in the wheat plant’s life cycle: at germination, at booting, and at flowering, as far as I remember. I won’t describe the experiment in detail, suffice to say that we used a randomized complete block design with at least five replicates per variety per treatment and control (i.e. no waterlogging whatsoever). Waterlogging was achieved by placing pots inside a larger pot lined with a polythene bag and filled with water for a definite length of time. Cai carefully measured the rate of growth of the wheat plants, as well as the final yield of grains from each.

After which we had a large database of numbers. Observations. Data. Facts!

Applying appropriate statistical tests to the data, Cai clearly showed that the varieties did indeed respond differently to waterlogging, and we interpreted this to indicate genetic variation for this trait in wheat that could be exploited to improve wheat varieties for waterlogging-prone areas. I encouraged Cai to prepare a manuscript for publication. After all, I was confident with the quality of his research.

We submitted his manuscript to the well-known agricultural research journal Euphytica. After due process, the paper was rejected—not the first time this has happened to me I should add. But I was taken aback at the comments from one of the anonymous referees, who did not accept our results—the observations, the data—claiming that there was no evidence that waterlogging was a verifiable trait in wheat, and especially in the lines we had studied. Which flew in the face of the data we had presented. We hadn’t pulled the numbers like a rabbit out of a hat. I did then wonder whether the referee was a wheat expert from CIMMYT. Not wishing to be paranoid, of course, but was the referee biased? I never did get an opportunity to take another look at the manuscript to determine if it could be revised in any way. As I said, we were confident in the experimental approach, the data were solid, the analysis sound—and confirmed by one of my geneticist colleagues who had a much better grasp of statistics than either Cai or me. Result? The paper was never published, something I have regretted for many years.

So you can see that there were several elements to our work, as in much of science. We had a hypothesis about waterlogging tolerance in wheat. We could test this hypothesis by designing an experiment to measure the response of wheat to waterlogging. But then we had to interpret the results.

Now if we had measured just one plant per variety per treatment all we could have said is that these plants were different. It’s like measuring the height say of a single plant of two wheat varieties grown in different soils. All we can state is the height we measured. We can make no inference about any varietal differences or responses. For that we need several measurements—numbers, data—that allow us to state whether if any observed differences are ‘real’ or due to chance. That’s what we do all time in science. We want to know if what we measure is a true reflection of nature. It’s not possible to measure everything, so we use a sample, and then interpret the data using appropriate statistical analyses. But we have to be careful as this interesting article on the perils of statistical interpretation highlights.

Back to The Donald
One of the most important and current data relationships is based in climate science. And this brings me back to The Donald. There is an overwhelming consensus among scientists that relationship between increased CO2 levels and increases in global temperatures is the result of human activity. The positive relationship between the two sets of data is unequivocal. But does that mean a cause and effect relationship? The majority of scientists say yes; climate deniers do not. That makes the appointment of arch-denier Scott Pruitt as head of the Environment Protection Agency in the US so worrying.

Donald Trump does not like facts. He doesn’t like numbers either unless he can misappropriate them in his favor (such as the jobs or productivity data that clearly relate to the policies under Mr 44). He certainly did not like the lack of GOP numbers to pass his repeal of the Affordable Care Act (aka Obamacare).

He regularly dismisses the verifiable information in front of his eyes, preferring ‘alternative facts’ and often inflated numbers to boot, instead. Just remember his sensitivity and his absurd claims that the 20 January National Mall crowds were largest for any presidential inauguration. The photographic evidence does not support this Trumpian claim; maybe fantasy would be a better description.

Time magazine has just published an excellent article, Is Truth Dead? based on an interview with The Donald, and to back it up, Time also published a transcript of the interview. This not only proves what Mr 45 said, but once again demonstrates his complete lack of ability to string more than a couple of coherent words together. Just take a look for yourselves.

Part of Trump’s rhetoric (or slow death by Tweet) is often based on assertions that can be verified: the biggest, the longest, the most, etc. Things can measured accurately, the very thing he seems to abhor. His aim to Make America Great Again cannot be measured in the same way. What is great? Compared to what or when? It’s an interpretation which can be easily contradicted or at the very least debated.

That’s what so disconcerting about the Trump Administration. The USA is a scientific powerhouse, but for how much longer if the proposed agency budget cuts that The Donald has promised really bite (unless related to the military, of course). There’s an increasing and worrying disdain for science among Republican politicians (and here in the UK as well); the focus on climate change data is the prime expression of that right now.

 

When is an earworm not an earworm?

Not an earworm exactly, according to the strict definition, although music was involved.

Now, why I woke up in the early hours today thinking about a BBC television series that was first aired in 1962 and ran until 1971, I have no idea. But there it was, going round and round in my mind; and once I’d remembered the theme music, the worm had become quite active.

If you are in your late 60s (as I am) then you will have fond memories—probably—of the long running series, Dr Finlay’s Casebook set in the late 1920s about a doctors’ practice (pre-NHS) in the fictional Scottish town of Tannochbrae. Based on a novella Country Doctor by Scottish physician and author AJ Cronin, Dr Finlay’s Casebook ran to 191 episodes*, and starred, left to right, Scottish actors Andrew Cruickshank as senior partner Dr Cameron and Bill Simpson as Dr Finlay, with Barbara Mullen as the indomitable housekeeper Janet MacPherson (who was actually born in Massachusetts of Irish parents).

So why did I wake up thinking about this series? As I blogged recently, I’ve set myself the challenge of reading throughout 2017 all the novels by Charles Dickens. Since the beginning of the year I have completed David Copperfield, Bleak House, and A Tale of Two Cities, and have just embarked upon Little Dorrit. Having particularly enjoyed Bleak House, my wife and decided to watch the acclaimed 2005 BBC adaptation on DVD; we watched Episode 14 (of 15) last night. Maybe it was this that got my mind going into overdrive: the idea of a remake or new adaptation of a [polular series (as the BBC has already done over two series of the popular 1975 series Poldark).

But why Dr Finlay’s Casebook? With the Tannochbrae theme whirring around my brain, I conjured up all manner of present-day adaptations. Who would play the lead roles, and what contemporary themes would run through the various episodes? Well, looming Scottish Independence seems a logical story line, Brexit even, as well as the challenges of the NHS today (almost pre-NHS in its delivery in some parts of the nation).

Lead actors**? Well, my nomination for Dr Cameron is ex-Prime Minister Gordon Brown, or maybe ex-LibDem leader Menzies ‘Ming’ Campbell, while SNP Leader and Scottish First Minister Nicola Sturgeon would make an admirable housekeeper Janet. I already have someone in mind for Dr Snoddie (Finlay’s detractor and admirer of Janet, who was played by Eric Woodburn in the original series): Malcolm Rifkind!

But who to play Dr Finlay, an idealist striving for the best for his patients? Tony Blair? Alistair Darling? Definitely not Michael Gove! Any nominations?

Do all remakes work? Certainly not. Poldark 2015 has been highly acclaimed. But a remake of Dr Finlay that was so popular all those decades ago? Maybe not. Until I watched the clip below from an episode broadcast in 1964 I had forgotten just how well made and acted Dr Finlay’s Casebook was. There is a relaxed feeling to each scene, and a natural rapport between the actors, which just add to its apparent authenticity. And of course, more than a few wee drams!

Hopefully this blog post has now eliminated my Sunday morning earworm.

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* A sequel, Dr Finlay, set in the 1940s was broadcast by the commercial channel Scottish Television over four series and 27 episodes between 1993 and 1996. I was unaware of this until today when I started researching background information for this story.

** All images from Wikipedia

There’s more to genetic resources than Svalbard

Way above the Arctic Circle (in fact at 78°N) there is a very large and cold hole in the ground. Mostly it is dark. Few people visit it on a daily basis.

A germplasm backup for the world
Nevertheless it’s a very important hole in the ground. It is the Svalbard Global Seed Vault, where more than 70 genebanks have placed — for long-term security, and under so-called blackbox storage [1] — a duplicate sample of seeds from their genetic resources (or germplasm) collections of plant species important for agriculture. Many of the most important and genetically diverse germplasm collections are backed up in Svalbard. But there are hundreds more collections, including some very important national collections, still not represented there.

A beacon of light – and hope – shining out over the Arctic landscape. Photo courtesy of the Crop Trust.

Since it opened in 2008, the Svalbard vault has hardly ever been out of the media; here is a recent story from Spain’s El Pais, for example. If the public knows anything at all about genetic resources and conservation of biodiversity, they have probably heard about that in relation to Svalbard (and to a lesser extent, perhaps, Kew Gardens’ Millennium Seed Bank at Wakehurst Place in Sussex).

The Svalbard Vault is a key and vital component of a worldwide network of genebanks and genetic resources collections. It provides a long-term safety backup for germplasm that is, without doubt, the genetic foundation for food security; I have blogged about this before. At Svalbard, the seeds are ‘sleeping’ deep underground, waiting to be wakened when the time comes to resurrect a germplasm collection that is under threat. Waiting for the call that hopefully never comes.

Svalbard comes to the rescue
But that call did come in 2015 for the first and only time since the vault opened. Among the first depositors in Svalbard in 2008 were the international genebanks of the CGIAR Consortium, including the International Center for Agricultural Research in the Dry Areas (ICARDA). The ICARDA genebank conserves important cereal and legume collections from from the Fertile Crescent (the so-called ‘Cradle of Agriculture’) in the Middle East, and from the Mediterranean region. Until the civil war forced them out of Syria, ICARDA’s headquarters were based in Aleppo. Now it has reestablished its genebank operations in Morocco and Lebanon. In order to re-build its active germplasm collections, ICARDA retrieved over 15,000 samples from Svalbard in 2015, the only time that this has happened since the vault was opened. Now, thanks to successful regeneration of those seeds in Morocco and Lebanon, samples are now being returned to Svalbard to continue their long sleep underground.

ICARDA genebank staff ready to send precious seeds off to the Arctic. Dr Ahmed Amri, the ICARDA Head of Genetic Resources, is third from the right. Photo courtesy of ICARDA.

Another point that is often not fully understood, is that Svalbard is designated as a ‘secondary’ safety backup site. Genebanks sending material to Svalbard are expected to have in place a primary backup site and agreement. In the case of the International Rice Research Institute (IRRI), which I am most familiar with for obvious reasons, duplicate germplasm samples of almost the entire collection of 127,000 accessions, are stored under blackbox conditions in the -18°C vaults of The National Center for Genetic Resources Preservation in Fort Collins, Colorado. Although ICARDA had safety backup arrangements in place for its collections, these involved several institutes. To reestablish its active collections in 2015 it was simpler and more cost effective to retrieve the samples from just one site: Svalbard.

We see frequent reports in the media about seeds being shipped to Svalbard.  Just last week, the James Hutton Institute in Dundee, Scotland, announced that it was sending seeds of potatoes from the Commonwealth Potato Collection to Svalbard; it was even reported on the BBC. A few days ago, the International Maize and Wheat Improvement Center (CIMMYT) in Mexico sent a ton of seeds to the vault. The International Center for Tropical Agriculture (CIAT), in Cali, Colombia sent its latest shipment of beans and tropical forages last October.

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Dr Åsmund Asdal, Coordinator of the Svalbard Global Seed Vault, from the Nordic Genetic Resource Center (NordGen), receives a shipment of germplasm from CIAT in October 2016. Photo courtesy of the Crop Trust.

The germplasm iceberg
Key and vital as Svalbard is, it is just the tip of the germplasm iceberg. The Svalbard vault is just like the part of an iceberg that you see. There’s a lot more going on in the genetic resources world that the public never, or hardly ever, sees.

There are, for example, other types of genetic resources that will never be stored at Svalbard. Why? Some plant species cannot be easily stored as seeds because they either reproduce vegetatively (and are even sterile or have low fertility at the very least; think of bananas, potatoes, yams or cassava); or have so-called recalcitrant seeds that are short-lived or cannot be stored at low temperature and moisture content like the seeds of many cereals and other food crop species (the very species stored at Svalbard). Many fruit tree species have recalcitrant seeds.

Apart from the ICARDA story, which was, for obvious reasons, headline news, we rarely see or hear in the media the incredible stories behind those seeds: where they were collected, who is working hard to keep them alive and studying the effects of storage conditions on seed longevity, and how plant breeders have crossed them with existing varieties to make them more resistant to diseases or better able to tolerate environmental change, such as higher temperatures, drought or flooding. Last year I visited a potato and sweet potato genebank in Peru, a bean and cassava genebank in Colombia, and one for wheat and maize in Mexico; then in Kenya and Ethiopia, I saw how fruit trees and forage species are being conserved.

Here is what happens at IRRI. You can’t do these things at Svalbard!

These are the day-to-day (and quite expensive) operations that genebanks manage to keep germplasm alive: as seeds, as in vitro cultures, or as field collections.

But what is the value of genebank collections? Check out a PowerPoint presentation I gave at a meeting last June. One can argue that all germplasm has an inherent value. We value it for its very existence (just like we would whales or tigers). Germplasm diversity is a thing of beauty.

Most landraces or wild species in a genebank have an option value, a potential to provide a benefit at some time in the future. They might be the source of a key trait to improve the productivity of a crop species. Very little germplasm achieves actual value, when it used in plant breeding and thereby bringing about a significant increase in productivity and economic income.

There are some spectacular examples, however, and if only a small proportion of the economic benefits of improved varieties was allocated for long-term conservation, the funding challenge for genebanks would be met. Human welfare and nutrition are also enhanced through access to better crop varieties.

impact-paper_small_page_01Last year, in preparation for a major fund-raising initiative for its Crop Diversity Endowment Fund, the Crop Trust prepared an excellent publication that describes the importance of genebanks and their collections, why they are needed, and how they have contributed to agricultural productivity. The economic benefits from using crop wild relatives are listed in Table 2 on page 8. Just click on the cover image (right) to open a copy of the paper. A list of wild rice species with useful agronomic traits is provided in Table 3 on page 9.

Linking genebanks and plant breeding
Let me give you, once again, a couple of rice examples that illustrate the work of genebanks and the close links with plant breeding, based on careful study of genebank accessions.

The indica variety IR72 was bred at IRRI, and released in 1990. It became the world’s highest yielding rice variety. One of its ancestors, IR36 was, at one time, grown on more than 11 million hectares. IR72 has 22 landrace varieties and a single wild rice, Oryza nivara, in its pedigree. It gets its short stature ultimately from IR8, the first of the so-called ‘miracle rices’ that was released in 1966. IRRI celebrated the 50th anniversary of that release recently. Resistance to a devastating disease, grassy stunt virus, was identified in just one accession of O. nivara from India. That resistance undoubtedly contributed to the widespread adoption of both IR36 and IR72. Just click on the pedigree diagram below to open a larger image [2].

IR Varieties_TOC.indd

The pedigree of rice variety IR72, that includes 22 landrace varieties and one wild species, Oryza nivara. Courtesy of IRRI.

A more recent example has been the search for genes to protect rice varieties against flooding [3]. Now that might seem counter-intuitive given that rice in the main grows in flooded fields. But if rice is completely submerged for any length of time, it will, like any other plant, succumb to submergence and die. Or if it does recover, the rice crop will be severely retarded and yield very poorly.

Rice varieties with and without the SUB1 gene after a period of inundation

Rice varieties with and without the SUB1 gene following transient complete submergence. Photo courtesy of IRRI.

Seasonal flooding is a serious issue for farmers in Bangladesh and eastern India. So the search was on for genes that would confer tolerance of transient complete submergence. And it took 18 years or more from the discovery of the SUB1 gene to the release of varieties that are now widely grown in farmers’ fields, and bringing productivity backed to farming communities that always faced seasonal uncertainty. These are just two examples of the many that have been studied and reported on in the scientific press.

There are many more examples from other genebanks of the CGIAR Consortium that maintain that special link between conservation and use. But also from other collections around the world where scientists are studying and using germplasm samples, often using the latest molecular genetics approaches [4] for the benefit of humanity. I’ve just chosen to highlight stories from rice, the crop I’m most familiar with.

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[1] Blackbox storage is described thus on the Crop Trust website (https://www.croptrust.org/our-work/svalbard-global-seed-vault/): “The depositors who will deposit material will do so consistently with relevant national and international law. The Seed Vault will only agree to receive seeds that are shared under the Multilateral System or under Article 15 of the International Treaty or seeds that have originated in the country of the depositor.

Each country or institution will still own and control access to the seeds they have deposited. The Black Box System entails that the depositor is the only one that can withdraw the seeds and open the boxes.” 

[2] Zeigler, RS (2014). Food security, climate change and genetic resources. In: M Jackson, B Ford-Lloyd & M Parry (eds). Plant Genetic Resources and Climate Change. CABI, Wallingford, Oxfordshire. pp. 1-15.

[3] Ismail, AM & Mackill, DJ (2014). Response to flooding: submergence tolerance in rice. In: M Jackson, B Ford-Lloyd & M Parry (eds). Plant Genetic Resources and Climate Change. CABI, Wallingford, Oxfordshire. pp. 251-269.

[4] McNally, KL (2014). Exploring ‘omics’ of genetic resources to mitigate the effects of climate change. In: M Jackson, B Ford-Lloyd & M Parry (eds). Plant Genetic Resources and Climate Change. CABI, Wallingford, Oxfordshire. pp. 166-189.

Only a heartbeat away – who was that Vice President?

With a new administration now firmly ensconced in the White House, I did wonder the other day (after seeing a photo-op with Vice President Mike Pence standing alongside The Donald) how long it would take for this VP to fade into obscurity (or semi-obscurity at least). I wonder if he is beginning to regret life under his new boss. Well, at least during this four-year term, Trump cannot say ” You’re fired!”, but he can side-line his vice president quite effectively if he chooses to do so. And I suspect with this self-centered, narcissistic President, that is exactly what will happen.

However, VP Pence has already left one legacy by casting the deciding vote in the Senate to confirm Betsy DeVos as the incoming Secretary of Education, and he sounds rather pleased with himself.

The fate of VPs
Vice Presidents have been side-lined before. After all, under the US constitution, the only formal—and limited—roles for the Vice President are ‘to become President, should the President become unable to serve, and to act as the presiding officer of the Senate‘.

384px-dan_quayle_official_dod_photoOn the inauguration platform on 20 January, alongside former Presidents Carter, Clinton, George W Bush, and Obama, stood former Vice President Dan Quayle.

Dan who? I bet many people who read this blog will never have heard of Dan Quayle, or if they have, will have forgotten about his four years in office under George Bush Senior from 1989-1993. He was the 44th Vice President, remembered perhaps only for his inability to spell ‘potato’.

Anyway, this got me thinking.

Harry S Truman was the 33rd President when I was born in November 1948. He had assumed the presidency in 1945 on the death of Franklin D Roosevelt, just 82 days after having been sworn in on 20 January. He then served out the remainder of Roosevelt’s term until the general election of 1948. Truman won a famous election victory just a couple of weeks before my birth, defeating Thomas Dewey in the face of all the election polls to the contrary. He remained in office until 1953. Between Roosevelt’s death and his election win in 1948, Truman served without a Vice President; I guess in constitutional terms his successor, should he have died in office, was the Speaker of the House. From 1949-1953, Truman’s Vice President was Alben W Barkley from Kentucky, consigned like so many Vice Presidents to the dustbin of history.

Then came:

  • Eisenhower – Nixon
  • Kennedy – Johnson
  • Johnson – Humphrey
  • Nixon – Agnew / Ford
  • Ford – Rockefeller
  • Carter – Mondale
  • Reagan – Bush Sr
  • Bush Sr – Quayle
  • Clinton – Gore
  • Bush Jr – Cheney
  • Obama – Biden
  • Trump – Pence

Lyndon B Johnson became President on the assassination of President Kennedy in November 1963. Johnson served for 14 months without a Vice President, until his election victory in his own right in November 1964 alongside Hubert Humphrey.

Richard Nixon fought an unsuccessful election against Kennedy in 1960; but he did eventually win the presidency in 1968 against Hubert Humphrey, only to resign half-way through his second term following the Watergate scandal. Nixon’s Vice President, Spiro Agnew from Maryland was forced to resign in October 1973.

Agnew’s resignation triggered the first use of the 25th Amendment, specifically Section 2, as the vacancy prompted the appointment and confirmation of Gerald Ford, the House Minority Leader, as his successor. This remains one of only two instances in which the amendment has been employed to fill a vice-presidential vacancy. The second time was when Ford, after becoming President upon Nixon’s resignation, chose Nelson Rockefeller (originally Agnew’s mentor in the moderate wing of the Republican Party) to succeed him as Vice President (from Wikipedia).

Gerald Ford became the 38th President in August 1974 on the resignation of President Nixon; he also served without a Vice President until the appointment of Nelson Rockefeller in December that year.

Some Vice Presidents left a mark on history; most don’t. It has been interesting over the past eight years to observe the relationship between Barack Obama and his VP Joe Biden – a ‘bromance’ almost. I think Obama’s respect for Biden was summed up in his award to Biden, just a few days before leaving office, of the Presidential Medal of Freedom (With Distinction), the USA’s highest civilian honour.

Vice President Biden will long be remembered. So goes Pence? I doubt it. Unless . . . ?