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Jules Janick

Nikolai Ivanovich Vavilov (1887–1943), one of the pioneers of 20th century plant breeding, is best known for seminal work in identifying centers of origins and diversity for cultivated plants. Vavilov studied genetics with William Bateson from 1913 to 1914 at the John Innis Horticultural Institute. In 1921, he was chosen by Vladimir Lenin to head the Branch of Applied Botany in Petrograd (St. Petersburg) and rose to be the Director of the All-Union Institute of Agriculture in Leningrad, where he oversaw agricultural research for the entire country. By 1934, Vavilov established more than 400 research institutes and experiment stations with a staff of 20,000. His efforts established the Soviet Union as a world leader in genetics and plant breeding in the 1920s and early 1930s. Vavilov carried out an extensive series of expeditions worldwide, including the United States, to collect germplasm; and he created the world’s largest repository, over 250,000 seed accessions. However, as a result of famine in the Soviet Union in the late 1920s, partly as a result of forced collectivization of peasants, Vavilov came in conflict with an ambitious agronomist, Trofim Lysenko, who came to prominence with an agricultural technique proposed in 1928, of exposing chilled, soaked seeds of wheat (dubbed vernalization) to extend production in northern areas of Russia. Lysenko’s rejection of Mendelian genetics won the support of Joseph Stalin, leading to the arrest and death sentence of Vavilov, although this was later commuted to 20 years imprisonment. Vavilov died of starvation in prison in 1943, thus entering the select group of martyrs of science along with Gordiano Bruno, Galileo Galilei, Antoine Lavoisier, and Georgii Karpechenko.

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Jules Janick

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Jules Janick

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Jules Janick

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Jules Janick

Advanced agricultural and horticultural systems are a feature of pre-Columbian civilizations of the Americas. Practically all of the crops that originated in the New World were domesticated before European incursions. Thus, the New World crops currently grown in Asia, Africa, Europe, and Oceania should be considered as a contribution of indigenous cultures of the Americas to humanity. The history of these indigenous crops can be found in the written post-Columbian record of explorers, correspondents, travelers, and botanists. It can also be traced in the iconographic record derived from pre-Columbian artifacts, illustrated manuscripts, herbals, paintings, and sculpture. This information is particularly useful for such fields as taxonomy, genetics, crop domestication, crop evolution, and genetic diversity. Major New World crops to be reviewed include grains and pseudograins (amaranth, maize, quinoa), legumes (common bean, lima beans, peanut), cucurbits (chayote, pumpkins, squash), solanaceous fruits (capsicum peppers, husk tomato, pepino, tomato), starchy roots and tubers (cassava, potato, sweetpotato), fruit and nuts (blueberry, brambles, cactus pear, cashew, papaya, pineapple, strawberry), beverage crops (cacao, mate), ornamentals (dahlia, fuchsia, sunflower), and industrial crops (cotton, Pará rubber, tobacco).

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Jules Janick

The prehistoric discovery that certain plants cause harm and others have curative powers is the origin of the healing professions and its practitioners (priest, physician, and apothecary), as well as professions devoted to plants (botany and horticulture). The description of plants and their properties and virtues (termed herbals in the 16th century) became an invaluable resource for the physician and apothecary. The earliest medicobotanical treatises date to antiquity. A Sumerian tablet from about 2100 bce (before current era) contains a dozen prescriptions and proscribes plant sources. In China, the Pen T'Sao Ching, assumed to be authored by the legendary Emperor Shen Nung in 2700 bce, but probably written in the first century, contains about 100 herbal remedies. The Ebers Papyrus, a medical treatise from ancient Egypt dates to 1550 bce but contains material from 5-20 centuries earlier. In Greece, the great botanical treatise Enquiry into Plants of Theophrastus, devotes book IX to the medicinal value of herbs. The herbal De Materia Medica by Pedanios Dioscorides of Anazarba, a Roman army physician, written in the year 65, the most famous ever written, was slavishly referred to, copied, and commented on for 1500 years. The great epoch of printed herbals appeared in the 16th century of which the most notable are Das Buch zu Distillieren (1500) by Hieronymus Brunschwig; Herbarum Vivae Eicones (1530, 1532, 1536) by Otto Brunfel; Kreüter Buch (1542) by Hieronymus Bock; De Historias Stirpium (1542) of Leonhart Fuchs; New Herball (1551, 1562, 1568) by William Turner; Commentarii “on Dioscorides” (1544) by Pier Andrea Mattioli; Crôÿdeboeck (1554) by Rembert Dodoens; and the Herball (1597) by John Gerard. Botany and medicine were essentially in step until the 17th century when both arts turned scientific and, at this juncture, botanical works would essentially ignore medicinal uses while medical works were devoid of plant lore. Yet, the medicinal use of herbs continues as an alternate form of medicine and remains popular in various forms to the present day despite the questionable efficacy of many popular herbs and the reliance of many herbal recommendations on superstition and astrology. The fact that most drugs were originally plant-based has encouraged a new look at the medicinal properties of plants.

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Jules Janick

Luther Burbank (1849–1926), the best-known horticulturist in the United States, was honored in 1940 by having a U.S. postage stamp in his honor—as a scientist! Burbank became a legend in his time as the plant inventor and horticultural wizard releasing a prodigious 800 new cultivars, a number of which are still being grown, the most famous being the ‘Burbank’ potato, the ‘Santa Rosa’ plum, and the ‘Shasta’ daisy. During his lifetime he was considered as a coequal with Henry Ford, inventor of the assembly line factory, and Thomas A. Edison, inventor of the light bulb and phonograph. Hugo de Vries, Liberty Hyde Bailey, and Nikolai Ivanovich Vavilov visited him and lauded his operation. Burbank promoted the concept that plant breeding could be the basis of a business and his headquarters in Santa Rosa, CA, became world famous. He established a publication company to disseminate his work and was instrumental in the eventual passage of the Plant Patent Act of 1930. However, Burbank was not a scientist. Although a strong supporter of Darwin and the theory of natural selection, he did not understand the contributions of Mendel to genetics and breeding. He performed no experiments in the classical sense and his notes were fragmentary. In 1904, he received a large grant from the Carnegie Institution ($10,000 annually) to promote the scientific study of plant breeding, which was discontinued after 5 years when the reviewer, George Harrison Shull, determined that Burbank’s procedure was more art than science. However, Burbank is justly famous as a successful plant breeder. He intuitively followed the modern rationale of plant breeding by obtaining abundant diversity, using repeated and successive hybridization, and carrying out rigorous selection. Above all he had an eye and feel for plants. His success is an affirmation that plant breeding is an art as well as a science. As an innovative plant breeding artist, Luther Burbank remains an inspiration to plant breeders and horticulturists.

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Jules Janick

More than half of the world's food crops have originated in Asia. Throughout the centuries there has been an exchange of crops between Asia and the rest of the world and, as a result, some of the most well known crops in North America, both food crops and ornamental species, are Asian species. The globalization of the world's economy opens up the possibility of new exchanges.