When Nature Takes Too Long

Photo from Carolina Supply Company

Another new year means one more opportunity to start fresh, change for the better or, if you are botanically inclined, turn over a new leaf. But change is difficult and, if you are a plant, producing leaves can take some time. For biologists studying plants, the time it takes to grow a seed into a leafy seed-producing adult can be intolerably long. That’s why in 1987 Dr. Paul H. Williams’ New Year’s resolution was to speed up his scientific research.

Dr. Williams studied plant genetics at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. He worked with a plant called Brassica rapa, which is related to turnips and cabbage and takes six months to complete its life cycle. Plant geneticists spend a lot of time pollinating plants, collecting seeds and looking for different traits in each successive generation. Can you imagine waiting half a year to complete one step of an experiment? It was just too much! By crossing his Brassica plants with related species, Dr. Williams was able to drop the generation time of his plants from 6 months to just 5 weeks. His Wisconsin Fast Plants® were a huge hit and are publicly available as an educational tool for very young, aspiring scientists with short attention spans. Never before has turning over a new leaf been so quick and effortless . . . now about getting that gym membership . . .

Brian Rutter, PhD, is the cofounder of Thing in a Pot Productions and a postdoctoral researcher in plant biology at Indiana University. Subscribe to our newsletter to receive our “Things About Things – Odd Facts About Plants” and video production tips in your inbox every month!

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