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Plant experts discuss new seeds and old seed catalogs


Christianne White/Boyce Thompson Institute
Marty Schlabach tells the story of the Bailey seed and nursery catalog collection and Mann Library’s efforts to digitize the collection.

Christianne White/Boyce Thompson Institute
A display of corn varieties created by Synapsis, the graduate student association of the plant breeding and genetics section.

Plant researchers and home gardeners learned about efforts to preserve both ancient traits in the tomato and Cornell’s collection of historical seed catalogs at Mann Library’s Harvesting Heritage event June 5.

Professor James Giovannoni, a researcher at the Boyce Thompson Institute and the USDA Agricultural Research Service, explained why store-bought tomatoes taste so bland and what plant researchers are doing to fix it.

Tomatoes are a $3 billion business in the U.S., with most tomatoes grown at high-density farms in California and Florida. To ensure these fragile fruits survive a cross-country trip to the grocery store, breeders have created tomatoes that won’t rot in transit by controlling the ripening process.

A ripening tomato goes through a lot of changes to attract consumers. “It suddenly goes through a program that says ‘eat me,’” said Giovannoni. Ripening also makes the fruit susceptible to bacteria and fungi, which release tomato seeds when the fruit rots.

But rotten tomatoes are bad for business, so researchers have bred several traits into commercial tomatoes to delay the process.

In the early 1960s, Cornell professor Henry M. Munger discovered a tomato mutation that causes the fruit to ripen slowly. This characteristic has been bred into all major commercial tomato varieties, giving farmers two extra weeks to get their produce to market. Breeders also have created varieties that ripen simultaneously for more efficient harvesting and that lose their stem when picked to protect the flesh during transport. Without this change, “by the time you get to the end of the road, you’re salsa at best,” said Giovannoni.

But some of these changes resulted in tasteless produce. In his current work, Giovannoni is crossing modern tomatoes with ancient varieties to understand the genetics behind flavor and nutrition.

In the second half of the event, Marty Schlabach, food and agriculture librarian at Mann Library, spoke about the Ethel Zoe Bailey Horticultural Catalogue Collection and the library’s efforts to digitize the texts.

Horticulturist Liberty Hyde Bailey began collecting seed catalogs soon after joining Cornell in 1888. He used them as a record of new crop varieties and of changing trends in horticulture. His donated collection contains more than 136,000 items. The university named it for his daughter, Ethel, who curated the seed catalogs for 70 years, until her death in 1983.

Nursery catalogs have evolved from single-page broadsides dating to the 1790s to text booklets, to catalogs with hand-drawn images and later color lithography and photography, to websites. They serve as a resource for plant breeders looking for pest-resistant varieties, museums that wish to recreate historically accurate exhibits and art historians interested in changing illustration techniques.

To digitize and preserve these catalogs, Mann Library is working with the New York Botanical Garden, the National Agricultural Library at the USDA and the Missouri Botanical Garden to display the pages on the open-access Biodiversity Heritage Library website. But often these scanned images are not searchable by text.

“Whenever a publication – a book, journal or seed catalog – is digitized, it’s really just a visual representation of that page,” said Schlabach.

To correct this problem, Schlabach is working with the Missouri Botanical Garden, Harvard University’s Museum of Comparative Zoology and the New York Botanical Garden to crowdsource a solution. The group has created a game called “Beanstalk” where users type in words and phrases from catalog images – just like the reCAPTCHA that websites use as a security feature – to make a stalk grow and flower. It is aimed at the “biodiversity community, because it’s going to improve the searchability of the digital texts,” he said.

The team also created a game called “Smorball” that targets gamers. Both websites went live June 9.

Patricia Waldron is the staff science writer for the Boyce Thompson Institute. 

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