Michael Mazourek, explaining the behavior of crop varieties toward other species of plants in proximity, says, "The world knows very little about how that works yet, unfortunately. There are some cases where there's a strong and important link, and other cases where it's really of no consequence."
Mazourek, a plant breeder at Cornell University, spends a lot of time breeding for pest and disease resistance. But I'm wondering how his peppers react to nearby cukes and other nonthreatening species. Mazourek says the scientific community is just starting to develop the know-how and appreciation to look at that sort of question. The breeder occasionally works with a chemical ecologist to explore such connections. "We're just starting to look at [the effects of] companion planting between squashes that are preferred by cucumber beetles and plants that resist those beetles."
Companion planting isn't a new concept; organic growers and home gardeners have been doing it for centuries. However, utilizing it in the process of seed development is unorthodox.
Combining old methods with new research techniques is a hallmark of Mazourek's work. Another hallmark is his choice to develop new varieties of a plethora of unrelated crops. While most breeders focus on one crop or one family of crops (brassicas, for example), Mazourek is simultaneously working on cucumbers, winter squashes, summer squashes, peas, peppers and cantaloupes. This broad approach allows the researcher to see interrelations between species that a more singularly focused breeder might not think to look for.
Of all the varieties he has developed, Mazourek's favorite is his first one: a no-heat habanero. "A lot of people have come up with some similar ones, but we have one we call the Habanada, for no heat," he says, emphasizing the "Spanglish" play on words. The researcher describes his product's flavor as "fun," and boasts of its high yields. "It was a really good breeding result ... that provided scientific satisfaction as well as culinary satisfaction."
What Mazourek really prizes about the Habanada is what the pepper taught him. Through the breeding process, Mazourek learned a lot about hot pepper flavor, how to control that flavor, and how to take different aspects of flavor and control them independently.
Thanks to this project, he can now explain the exact sections of Habanada's DNA used to manipulate the heat and flavor.
One gene controls the presence of heat; dozens of genes are involved in flavor and degree of spiciness. The researcher compares the allele array to a radio with a power button and a volume control. Mazourek also discovered that a high volume of flavor does not necessarily mean good flavor.
In one gene, which habaneros share with bell peppers, there is a natural mutation. Although the gene is the same, the mutation in habaneros is similar to but different from the one in bell peppers. Mazourek describes this as a "leaky" rather than an absolute zero heat mutation. He tested seedlings for whether they would produce peppers with no heat due to this mutation. This information allowed him and his team to plant only no-heat peppers, so they could tackle the complex trait of flavor without putting their taste buds at risk of spontaneous combustion from the heat of hundreds of hot pepper samples.
Habanada is a long-season plant that produces very well in soil with minimal fertility. It turns out that many peppers that are less domesticated than bell peppers stay in their vegetative phase too long if given soil rich in compost, etc. Habanada seeds are already being distributed to seed companies and will hit the market as soon as 2014.
If it seems like Habanada retains more wild ancestral traits than one might expect for a carefully bred hybrid, consider Mazourek's perspective: He sees a huge need and opportunity for plants that thrive on their natural genetics without the need for a lot of the pesticides now in use. Growers benefit from varieties that don't require numerous synthetic inputs. Organic growers, especially, have been struggling to work with seeds bred for agribusiness, which tend not to be adaptive to their environments.
Still, Mazourek isn't at the point of just developing localized seeds. Instead, he develops uniform cultivars of vegetables. He says growers can customize varieties to their micro-ecosystems by making some rather simple crosses. Cornell sends out many seed samples to enable growers to try varieties in the earlier stages. Mazourek says growers can get in on these early stages and help Cornell's researchers sift through their cultivars by testing the new varieties on their farms and sharing feedback. Today he's sorting through 80 different plots of squash, but when the newly developed variety hits the market, there might be 10, there might be one, there might be none. "Getting in early when there's diversity helps," he explains.
In collaboration with the Organic Seed Alliance and the Northern Organic Vegetable Improvement Collaborative, the Cornell Cooperative Extension program holds workshops to show growers how to use the different materials available to craft custom breeds on their own farms. Learn more at http://eorganic.info/novic/about.
The author is a freelance writer based in Massachusetts and a monthly contributor to Growing.