Reinventing the wheel

More evidence of multiple independent domestication events. Previous work has shown such a pattern for rice in Asia and cucurbits in the America. Now it’s the turn of barley in Eurasia. A paper just out ((Saisho, Daisuke, Purugganan, Michael. (2007) Molecular phylogeography of domesticated barley traces expansion of agriculture in the Old World. Genetics.)) looked at both sequences of 5 genes and also morphological traits in a geographically widespread set of 250-odd landraces. ((From a Japanese university genebank.))

The results suggest that the crop was first domesticated 10,000 years ago somewhere in the Fertile Crescent, from whence it spread to Europe, North Africa and Ethiopia (the material from Ethiopia was somewhat distinct, as has already been documented). However, there was apparently also a second domestication, much later. It occurred in the region encompassing southern Central Asia, the eastern Iranian plataeau and the edge of the Indian subcontinent, and it is material from here that spread eastward starting maybe 2,500 years ago, possibly along the Silk Road, to give rise to the barleys of India, the Himalayas and China.

This is not an unusual pattern in Eurasian agricultural biodiversity. Sheep and cattle DNA data also show “two highly divergent lineages that distinguish European and Asian types, indicating a second independent evolution of these livestock species outside the Near East.” Not unusual, but somewhat puzzling. As the barley authors conclude:

It remains unclear why different cultures sought to re-invent these domesticated species several times rather than simply obtain them through diffusion from other farming societies.

The authors of the barley study speculate that the second domestication happened either because of the transmission of knowledge, or as an independent innovation. I find the second option a bit hard to take. Could it be that the results of the first domestication effort were just not adapted to conditions outside the Fertile Crescent, or there was a barrier to their diffusion? Or maybe it was just a matter of pride for the inhabitants of the Iranian plateau to have their own agrobiodiversity?

Arctic seed monkeys in publicity storm

Some people have all the fun. Reporter Louise Roug, of the Los Angeles Times, has clearly had a blast writing a major feature on the Global Crop Diversity Trust’s “doomsday vault” on Svalbard, above the Arctic Circle. She has it all: glaciers and frozen wilderness; airlocks, steel-reinforced doors and a video-monitoring system; more aggressive farming methods, environmental degradation and changing weather patterns; quotes from senior science coordinators with the Trust.

She also, this being modern journalism, has contrary opinions. To provide balance. So the director of one NGO is reported as saying that the Arctic seed vault “tends to divert attention, energy and money away from what we consider as much more urgent and sustainable efforts to save biodiversity on the farm”.

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Indian fruit genebank threatened by democracy

NB: Update here.

We interrupt this blog for a public service announcement. The Indian Express is reporting a proposal by the government of Jharkand State in northeast India to bulldoze the field genebanks of the Horticulture and Agro Forestry Research Programme. More than 20 years of work and thousands of fruit varieties are set to be destroyed in order to create bungalows for Members of Parliament.

What to do? This makes the UK’s attempts to dump its apple and pear collection look positively suave. We’ve alerted people who might have some influence. But seriously, what else can be done? Is anyone in Jharkand taking this up? How about the rest of India? We’re rank amateurs at activism. Advise us.

We wouldn’t normally repost an entire item, but this is important enough that we’re making an exception. So here goes.

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