Plant domestication and the secrets in a plant's genome for 4th graders

To celebrate Fascination of Plants Day (FoPD) 2019, on May 22nd, Gramene's project manager and outreach, education and training coordinator, Dr. Marcela Karey Tello-Ruiz of Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory, visited fourth graders at Bayville's Intermediate (BI) School in New York to talk about plants and the secrets in their genomes!  In addition to a dynamic slideshow, students created colorful seed necklaces. This FoPD activity showed students that learning more about plants has improved our everyday lives, and that the study of plants is not only important, but can also be exciting and fun.

Through an interactive presentation, BI students realized that humans have not only domesticated animals --for example, through farming-- but we have also domesticated plants through agriculture!  Students were able to draw parallels between the selection of desirable traits in animals and plants.  For example, the selection that led to the creation of dog breeds --herding, hounds, working, etc.--, and the selection of suitable plant parts in the generation of crop varieties like broccoli, cauliflower, Brussels sprouts, cabbage, kohlrabi, and kale, which are indeed the same plant species!  The species in this case is Brassica oleracea, also known as wild mustard in its undomesticated form.

Plant genome research has been of paramount importance in food security, especially in the face of climate change. Currently, scientists are unlocking the secrets of some of the most important plants in our lives, including corn, cotton and potatoes.  BI students were shown selected excerpts of a fantastic set of short documentaries titled: Secrets of Plant Genomes: Revealed!  This set of of videos was created by the National Science Foundation (NSF) and it takes viewers on a lively, upbeat journey that explores how these common plants got to be the way they are today, and investigates how we can make better use of them in the future.  It also shows plant scientists hard at work--in the lab, in the field and at the computer--looking to increase our understanding of nature. 

Besides learning about plant domestication and how the fruits and vegetables that we eat today do not look much like their undomesticated ancestors, students learned about some common applications of genetically modified organisms or GMOs.  Examples included genetically engineered microorganisms used to produce renin, the enzyme most commonly used to make cheese (instead of harvesting it from unweaned calves) or to produce an essential reagent to detect bacterial endotoxins (instead of extracting it from live horseshoe crabs blood). Examples of genetically modified plants included biofortified golden rice, which has saved millions of children from blindness, blight resistant potatoes, and rainbow papaya.

The activity concluded with the children making seed necklaces with lab tubes containing nutritious agar for a tiny plant to grow inside them.

This outreach educational activity was made possible through National Science Foundation award #1127112 to the Gramene Project.  Visit Gramene's Facebook page for other outreach and educational activities that Gramene has brought to K-12 students in past years to celebrate FoPD.

Making colorful seed necklaces with Ms. Pederson's class

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Participating in the interactive presentation