Starch grains and the origins of agriculture

A couple of papers discussed here and here (among other places: the chili pepper story in particular has been getting a lot of media coverage) describe how the minute, species-characteristic starch grains found in micro-crevices on stone tools and cooking utensils recovered from archaelogical sites are being used to study the domestication of crops as varied as maize, cassava and chilies in the Americas. The findings are pushing back the timing of domestication and suggesting that wet lowland areas were more important in the process than previously thought. Jeremy blogs on the chili angle at greater length here. No word on the past of cactus cultivation, at least in these papers, but this piece suggests its future may be troubled.

Crop wild relatives underused

Are crop wild relatives (CWR) more trouble than they’re worth? There are certainly significant challenges involved in including them in breeding programmes, but you’d have thought that between the new molecular tools that are now out there, the greater numbers of CWR accessions in genebanks, and all the information about how useful CWRs can be, breeders would be falling over themselves to make those kinky inter-specific crosses. Well, according to a major review by our friends at Bioversity International (the outfit formerly known as the International Plant Genetic Resources Institute), the use of CWRs in breeding programmes has been steadily increasing in the past 20 years, but probably not as much as might have been expected. There’s been a number of papers recently on CWRs. This paper, also from Bioversity, looks at in situ conservation of CWR. Check out this for a discussion on the definition of the term, and, from some of the same people, there’s this overview of conservation and use of CWR, using a specific example. Here’s an example of conservation assessment and priority-setting for the wild relatives of the peanut. For a discussion of the possible effects of climate change on these species, see this.


This story is not particularly agricultural, but I couldn’t resist it. Brazilian researchers extracted the essential oils from a Piper sp commonly eaten by bats and then smeared the stuff on plastic fruits, which they then distributed in areas of damaged rainforest. The bats were attracted to the fake fruits, though they wouldn’t normally fly in degraded forest. Why go to all this trouble? Because the bats spread lots of seeds via their faeces, and could thus be used to restore the vegetation.

Silk-making in Kenya

The Sunday Nation has a feature article in its Lifestyle section on silk making in the semi-arid district of Mwingi in Kenya. Apparently, the silk worm used is a hybrid of the wild species found in the area and the domestic strain. People collect eggs in the bush and rear them in mosquito net cages. When it comes time to harvest the cocoons, some of the pupae are allowed to mature and fly back to the acacia bushes. The Commercial Insect Programme of the International Centre for Insect Physiology and Ecology (ICIPE) has helped a local womens’ group establish the first silk processing factory in the region. According to the article, a different race of the wild silk moth is being evaluated in Pokot and other highland areas for the production of tussar or kosa silk. This is a much prized form of naturally coloured silk produced from cocoons from which the moth has emerged naturally in the wild. Fascinating business.

Fido not a domesticated wolf?

Domestic dogs are derived from wolves, right? Maybe not. There is apparently a minority view that says that a better interpretation of behavioural, morphological and genetic differences between the domestic dog and the wolf is that the dog was domesticated from a now-extinct, pariah-like precursor, with occasional hybridization with wolves along the way. You can read more about this controversial view on Darren Naish’s zoological blog.