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[Plant-biology] Re: Archeobotany

bae At cs.toronto.no-uce.edu via plantbio%40net.bio.net (by bae At cs.toronto.no-uce.edu)
Fri Nov 17 23:20:46 EST 2006

In article <mailman.46.1163630272.19683.plantbio At net.bio.net>,
Robert  <rbennett At enablingwords.com> wrote:
>I'm hoping you can help me out of a jam.  I am a novelist based in New York.
>I'm writing a mystery novel which has as a character an Archeobotanist.  In
>the prologue to the story he has uncovered an ancient jar of grain which,
>when broken, awakens and unleashes a dormant corn disease that is quickly
>spreading globally. Here's my problem, I want this character to help the
>agricultural pathologists in the story to identify and cure the disease.
>I'm wondering how to describe how the character might do this.  Can you
>please help me?

Your character would be an archaeologist interested in ethnobotany or
an ethnobotanist interested in archaeology.  An ethnobotanist is a
scientist who studies how plants are used for food, medicine, dyes,
fabrics, building materials, etc by various cultures.

In general, you don't "cure" or even treat a disease in an annual crop
plant like maize which has a low value per acre, because the use of
chemicals is too expensive for such a crop.  Aside from better hygiene,
e.g. quarantining areas where the disease has occurred by prohibiting
movement of the crop out of the area, treating seed stock, developing
certified pathogen-free seeds, etc, the usual method of dealing with
new pathogens in grains is to develop resistant strains, often by
searching for relevant germplasm in the area where the crop originated,
where its genetic diversity is the greatest.  Note that quarantine and
clean seed may not be very effective in controlling a wind-borne

Most grain pathogens are fungi, and a plant pathologist shouldn't have
much trouble identifying a new pathogen, which is almost certainly
just a new strain of an old pathogen to which current cultivars have
limited resistance.  I suppose if you want to make your story more
exciting, you could invent something truly new in the way of grain
pathogens, a sort of maize ebola, since few readers, including your
editor, will know or care how unlikely it is.

If you want your novel to have some topical relevance, you can address
the issue of vanishing genetic diversity in the face of aggressive
agribusiness and climatic, social and political disruption in the
centers of diversity.  A few decades ago, a new strain of a barley
disease wiped out 40% of the US crop, and a resistance gene was
discovered in a remote region of the highlands of Ethiopia.  The next
time this happens, we may not be so lucky -- the peasants who maintain
these diverse strains may all be starving in urban shantytowns while
big landowners plant monocultures of Monsanto's latest genetically
uniform cultivar where thousands of landraces were once preserved.

So when your hero opens Pandora's box of miraculously preserved ancient
pathogen, the ancient genetics that resisted it may be very recently
extinct.  You might consider turning your plot element around and have
the character help the aggies deal with a new disease by providing DNA
from ancient seed to develop a resistant strain.  This is a bit in
advance of present technology, but probably less unlikely than a
pathogen that can survive in some lost jar for millennia, then suddenly
destroy the world maize crop.

Note that while a crop failure can cause famine in the Third World, in
the US, even a really serious disaster, like the pathogen that wiped
out over half the US maize crop a few decades ago because most of the
maize planted had the same inbred seed parent ("mother") that just
happened to be susceptible (hybrid seed producers used it so they could
produce seed more cheaply -- the strain was pollen sterile so they
didn't need to hire hundreds of high school students to detassel the
seed parents), the effect on the US consumer was minimal.  Almost all
the grain produced in the US is fed to animals, and if there's not
enough maize, they can feed the animals something else.  The price of
meat goes down for a bit as farmers sell off animals they can't afford
to feed, then goes up a bit as a shortage develops.  When US consumers
eat grain, they usually eat it in products for which the price paid to
the farmer is less than 1% the price on the supermarket shelf.

So in the US, some more farmers than usual will go bankrupt, unless the
government bails them out, but the consumer won't likely notice if most
of the maize crop fails.  And if a larger lot of desperate people in
poor countries find themselves starving because they can no longer
afford to buy the staff of life, well, most people in the US will just
shrug and worry about something of greater relevance, like the effect
of the obesity epidemic on their health and longevity.  The US is the
only developed country, AFAIK, where maize is an important crop.
Europe and Canada are too cold, Australia is too dry, and the Japanese
aren't interested.

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