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How Modern Crop Plants have improved from their Wild Ancestors

Nyamweya is a global researcher with many years of experience on practical research on a diversity of topics

Majority of today’s crops are a consequence of intensive scientific discovery and development in crop breeding. This has led to different set of crops compared to their wild ancestors. The development in plant breeding have resulted into plants with unique features since undesirable ones have been eliminated while also leading to plants that produce more yields than their wilder counterparts. The increased yield has subsequently led to an increase in human population since the needs of the wider population are now being met. However, there has been fear that this trend has been and continues to cause loss in bio-diversity, an increase in diseases to cloned plants and other disadvantages.

Majority of modern crops have been developed through the process of artificial selection where humans rather than nature perform the selection. Plant domestication resulted into genes which operated their morphology including the mechanism of dispersal, architecture of the plant, size of the seed and the physiology aspect as well as time when they ripen or germinate. The selection of crop breed has been an ongoing process and the breeders employ both conventional means and today’s sophisticated and scientific manipulations.

The major variation of modern crops with their wild counterparts is in the manner of distribution and reach of their spread. In particular, modern crops have now a broader geographical coverage, do not harbor shattering mechanism, and do not have regular pollination mechanism and have larger seeds and fruits. Further, modern crops have not the same ecological preference with their wild counterparts. In other words, they grow in a different climate and environment which is not the same as that of the wild population. Other differential aspects include lower dispersal efficiency, have longer seasons, have different system of breeding, may not harbor defensive adaptations such as thorns, spines, hairs, sturdiness, protective covering, and enhanced chemical composition and palatability. Meyer et al (2013) explain that when early foragers were selecting crops for domestication, they were usually selecting tubes or fruits with larger seeds. This subsequently resulted into crops that were larger than their wild varieties.

Modern crops have no seed dormancy, a feature that delineates it from their wild varieties. Stated differently, majority of wild crops have dormant seeds. For instance, wild seeds do not germinate instantly, especially at the end of the autumn. Rather, there is a delay of germination caused by hormonal control until such a time when the environments appear favorable for survival.

Corn is one good example of modern crop which have been transformed over centuries to become completely different from their wild ancestors. The crop evolved from a grass like plant identified as teosinte. The grass like plant developed gradually to become the modern day corn. Other common crops that are dependent upon by humans including as cotton, beans, taro, millet, sorghum, bananas, beans, potatoes among others are also developed to become from their wild ancestors. Revisiting the corn issue, the plant has now different and many varieties of the crop, unlike their wild ancestors which had few varieties. Some of the varieties have puny seeds, there are those which are shorter, others with many seeds, and those that are taller. What is more, modern seeds from corn have more genes, thus resulting into plump kernels which can be eaten or picked easily.

Other modern cereals such as wheat harbor fruiting heads which have no shattering, a feature that was vital in seed dispersal. Wheat has significantly deviated from its wild counterpart. While the wild wheat had a tendency of self pollination when ripe as a way of reseeding itself, modern wheat crops do not reseed themselves, rather, they remain on the stem to facilitate harvesting. Evidence suggests that this change in phenomena for wheat plant was brought about by random mutation which was triggered in the wild wheat population when the cultivation of wheat was first initiated. This mutation made it easier for wheat to be harvested on a consisted basis, and the seed for subsequent crop was obtained from the initial one. Thus, this form of mutation was artificially selected by early farmers, despite these farmers not realizing it. This resulted into modern form of wheat which is selected and planted by farmers as a way of reproduction rather than on their own. Wild barley and wheat have their seeds on top of their stalk which shatters spontaneously, thus allowing their seeds to drop spontaneously in order to germinate. Mutation of the single wheat prevented shattering of the seeds from taking place, hence no dropping of the seed. This made it possible for human beings to be able to collect the seeds and go with them to plant where they wished. The practice of collecting the seeds of this type and planting them resulted into a trend of seeds which did not have a shattering gene and diminishing those that shattering gene.

While the modern type of barley have usually six rows, there wild counterparts have two. In the case of fruits, most of the wild ones were smaller and tart when compared with their modern counterparts. Most of these fruits were also bitter, a sharp contrast with the modern fruits which have been transformed to become sugary and sweet. Fruits such as apples are completely different in taste, quality and even color from the present apples. The artificial selection and breeding by man have resulted into today’s fruits having high quantity of sugar, which is a direct contrast with the original status of the plants.

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The modern day tomato lycopersicum Solanum is another crop with variant traits from their wild ones. The crop’s wild relative is identified scientifically as pimpinellifolium L. The plant can grow along forests, roads, home gardens or along rivers. Selection and breeding of tomato have successfully modified the tomato plant, resulting into a plant that is disease resistant, can be adapted in a diversity of environments, has higher quality and produces more. Domesticators of tomato were more of interested in fruits that had more weight and to some extend how the crop looked like in terms of shape. This led to a breeding of tomato crops that had specific traits.

Nonetheless, though there are many benefits derived from selective breeding, modern crops appear to be more susceptible to pests and diseases, have a tendency of generating double flowers, develop seedless fruits and can become sexually unproductive.

The difference between modern crops and their wild ancestors can be equated with two parallels. In other words, these plants can be completely opposite with one another. In particular, modern crops have traits that allow easier harvesting, collection and dispersal. They also have improved quality, disease resistance, more yield and grow faster.

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