Wednesday, December 14, 2016

Plant Adaptation

When George H. W. Bush was president of the United States, he was involved in a interesting and humorous “dust-up” with nutritionists and parents alike. The humor of the incident may have carried over from discussion of the informal utterances of our nation’s chief executive all the way to resolution of “See, I told you so!” family squabbles around the dinner table. Famously, President Bush declared a strong dislike for broccoli, a vegetable which has become a staple of admiration from nutritionists and many food enthusiasts who love its qualities 2500 years after it first appeared on our planet.

Before using broccoli as an example to highlight the wonders of plant domestication and adaptation, I cannot resist recounting a humorous story from my childhood. My father was well versed in the science of agriculture as agent of a farm seed company in the 1940s. His expertise extended to our family garden planted each spring on our one acre lot. One year the broccoli was particularly productive, but family finances were not. My parents opted to freeze large quantities of broccoli even after the central New York State autumn had provided several frosts and the broccoli had begun its flowering stage. Over the winter my older brother, offered a frozen vegetable he did not like from the get-go, ended up despising it even more. His younger brother, writer of this blog, has overcome his childhood memory and now appreciates this domesticated vegetable delight. 

“Broccoli is a human innovation, a man-made food…..selected and cultivated by man throughout history. Known for its green hue and resemblance to a tiny tree, broccoli has been the bane of kids’ existence…..Broccoli is the result of selective breeding of wild cabbage plants starting around the 6th century BC.” (ponderweasel website) 

Brassica oleracea is a species of plants represented by a number of well-known vegetables. Some of the most well known are broccoli, cauliflower, brussels sprouts, kohlrabi, and kale, but many others exist, mostly consumed as food; a few others are valued as ornamentals. Not well known is the fact that all of the many cultivars of Brassica oleracea originated by the process of selection of plant traits more suited to the human rather than the wild environment. Surprisingly, all representatives of Brassica oleracea such as the popular vegetables mentioned above belong to the same species. After the initial selection processes repeated through many generations, horticulturalists focused on improving the plants they had selected. Cultivars result from selection skills. Beyond selection, improvement in the plants is accomplished by development of cultigens additionally altered in some way by clever and creative man made genetic initiatives.

God initially created many different species of plants and animals. Since the agricultural revolution many alterations at the species level have been accomplished by taking advantage of the potential of the artificial (man-made) selection process. The Creator intelligently designed life with its incredible DNA molecule and its genetic blueprint for the physical structure and functionality of living things, and the intricate regulatory processes inherent in life from the simplest living things to the complex human creature made in the image of God, and the millions of species between these extremes of life.

It is apparent that the potential for domestication of plants and animals is not tantamount to developing a new species. This disturbs evolutionists who search for examples to count naturalistic evolution as wholesale production of novel species. Broccoli, cauliflower, brussels sprouts, kohlrabi, and kale remain the same species—Brassica oleracea. Existence of these vegetables, and many other domesticated plants of diverse species, depends on man’s discovery of the process of selection, a rather unremarkable idea that early agriculturalists utilized: “Let’s select the largest, healthiest, most attractive, most harvestable, tastiest vegetables for next year’s crop and repeat the process year by year,” they reasoned. Little did they know their crops responded to the selection process by accomplishing modest genetic modifications. The action of just one gene at a specific position on the chromosome (a genetic locus), or several genes at several positions on the chromosome (genetic loci) could alter the phenotype (physical trait or traits) of certain plants. The gradual alteration of genes producing broccoli from the historic wild cabbage plant is a simple cause and effect phenomenon. The process, however, interspersed between the cause and effect steps, is not well understood except in the mind of our Creator.

Potential for modifications in plants and animals to benefit humanity is an outstanding example of intelligent design gifted by God to man to accomplish wondrous things in the area of genetics. We make the distinction between modifying living things and creating completely new living things. Does man have the ability to create life? even simple life? Currently some scientists, even theologians, recognize this possibility given the remarkable advances in knowledge of genetics and technology. Is this question fraught with unpleasant ethical overtones? Perhaps it is. 

If even the simplest life were ever produced and could be biologically defined as life, it would be an outstanding example of application of principles of intelligent design, already applied by God to produce a universe of incredible divine design characteristics and millions of unique and beautiful species.