Faces of Public Plant Breeding: Michael Mazourek

Michael Mazourek is the Calvin Noyes Keeney assistant professor of Plant Breeding in the Department of Plant Breeding and Genetics at Cornell University. Dr Mazourek works on the genetic improvement of peppers, cucurbits and snap peas for disease resistance, organic production and regional adaptation. In addition to his breeding program, his lab uses genomics to explore the genetic basis for these traits.

Why is seed important to you?

I think we all learn in elementary school that plants are primary producers and are important in the food chain, that fruits and vegetables should be a substantial portion of our diets, and that a key to civilization was the transition from hunter-gatherer subsistence to agriculture. The missing lesson for many of us, and I was self-taught here, is linking at least these three elements. The current concerns that are voiced about how to feed an overwhelming population, and a sweeping desire by many people to reconnect with where their food comes from, are all pointing back toward these basic elementary school lessons.

Seeds also hold one key to economic development. The local food movement is an aspect of our economy that cannot be outsourced. By definition it has to be produced in our communities, and production in our communities means profits tend to stay in our communities, and jobs grow locally. These people need services and resources purchased in our communities and the taxes on our community.

What led you to a career in plant breeding?

It was a long and winding road and I had no idea that I was heading this way, no idea that the career even existed, and when I was introduced to it for the first time didn’t like the sounds of it. Early in life I had thought about being a farmer, chef, or engineer, which seemed pretty eclectic. When I came to Cornell to work on pepper biochemical genetics I learned that there was all these cultivars that had been developed at Cornell that had the solutions to all the problems I had in my home garden for decades. I grew up one town over from Cornell so I couldn’t imagine why there was such a disconnect and why I had suffered for so long with powdery mildew when these folks had the cure! I would help Henry Munger find seed, listen to stories and visit his plots with him, and noticed that my advisor Molly Jahn seemed to be rather well-known for vegetable breeding. I felt I would be missing out on something if I didn’t ask her to teach me about it and we came up with a pepper breeding project for me. She moved to Wisconsin right about the time I was finishing my degree and I was wondering what I would do next. The lab work I was doing was fun and interesting, but I wasn’t sure if that’s what I wanted to do long-term. With Molly’s departure, a void became suddenly obvious in vegetable improvement in a suite of crops, as well as her more recent work to get the material out to the local region and everywhere that could benefit from her seeds. I had a revelation about the importance of her work and I had been training for it all my life.

My mom gave me an alternate version recently: I had a garden at home for as long as I could remember and grew butternut squash, hot peppers, and sugar snap peas. (Her actual version has a lot more embarrassing details here.) My first food was butternut squash puree and I have a picture of my dad feeding it to me. Apparently the doctor told her I wasn’t ready for solid foods yet and to not give me anymore for awhile. I have been strangely driven to work on squash ever since. Perhaps I need to watch Citizen Kane a few more times to figure it out…

How long have you been a plant breeder?

Only about five years now. I was a plant geneticist and researcher before but never really a breeder until recently.

What’s your favorite part of the job?

There are a few. The seasonality and the diversity that it provides: waiting for the fields to warm and dry enough to till, the logistics of the first week of transplanting, the hot sun of pollinations, the scramble to get things in before the frost, and then moving indoors to the greenhouse with the snow outside.

The suspense: cutting open a watermelon, watching which plants will be free from disease, tasting fruit from the line that was the best last year.

Bringing students out to the field to share the plant breeding experience with them.

What’s your least favorite part of the job?

The paperwork associated with ownership of materials.

How would you characterize the importance of your job as a public plant breeder?

I complement the seed industry. I am less driven by market opportunities and can focus more on unmet needs in underserved groups. Often this is regional adaptation and organic systems. I can more easily do exploratory, long-term projects in the name of science, inquiry, and future needs. There is overlap for sure, but the emphasis is shifted.

I train the next generation of plant breeders: rather important.

I preserve knowledge and resources by publishing what I learn for others to use, and we curate seed collections that go back decades, which is unlike seed that can come and go based on the current year’s product line.

Has public plant breeding changed since you’ve been in the field?

I haven’t been a plant breeder long enough to experience this and I came into plant breeding as a molecular biochemist and son of a dairy farmer. Much of plant breeding now incorporates more knowledge of the inner workings of the inheritance of traits and seeks efficiency through mechanization to work more quickly and cheaply. My approach to plant breeding combines field work with DNA sequencing and introducing mechanization and gadgets to try to be more efficient. For those that are used to taking notes on a clip board to type up in the winter during the slow time of year, and hand transplanting with a crew of technicians, the contrast of my barcode readers, handheld PCs, and a swarm of undergraduates feeding the waterwheel transplanter is a huge change. We need to try to be more productive with reduced funds, so that frugal innovation skill learned from the family is critical.

Tell us about the projects you’re working on with OSA. How did you get involved?

Jim Myers at Oregon State University invited me to join a project that came to be known as NOVIC and everything took off from there!

What has been most exciting or surprising about this project?

At an IFOAM conference in Santa Fe, I first got to meet Micaela, John, and Matt from OSA. I remember a workshop we did together there and introducing myself as working on “vegetable breeding and genomics for organic systems at Cornell.” As you could imagine this seems a bit of an oxymoron and the audience did not fail to find humor in that phrase. I think John in particular chortled at that one. Since then we have all gotten to know each other and they got to know me as someone that is coming from a similar place, share many of their goals, and brings a complementary expertise.

What has been most challenging?

Keeping up! OSA has such a great established relationship with a group of larger scale, certified organic growers, and we are still early in our relationships with growers that are spread across the state on smaller farms.

Why did you choose to partner with OSA?

OSA is so strong at the community-building aspect of seed!

Why do you believe OSA’s work is important?

They are pioneers in developing resources and methods. Bringing the community together allows them to be powerful advocates for a group that is otherwise often too consumed with their direct responsibilities and tasks to take on this level of networking.

What do you see as the biggest challenge to managing and improving crop genetics today?

The lack of resources and small number of people working on agriculture. How do we convince 99% of the population that investing their tax dollars in supporting the development of resources for the 1% of the population that farms is a good investment, and that it’s appropriate for the investment to come from them? The biggest needs are often within the smallest crops within that 1%.

What do you find hopeful or inspiring in your work as a plant breeder?

The resurgence of interest in seed. Seed saving and seed improvement are such popular topics now that the general public is becoming engaged in the process. We are in need of a comeback for sure, but we seem to have the opportunity if we can pull it off.

I also remember when I was writing my first OFRF grant and started to receive letters of support. It was such a joy to see that others saw value in what I was doing and that all my hard work was worth it.

It’s the 150th anniversary of the U.S. Department of Agriculture and our land grant university system. What is USDA doing well? What can the agency do better?

The USDA has had a series of grant opportunities such as OREI that provided a means to support work that prioritized addressing practical needs. They have recognized the need to support public plant cultivar developers. I look forward to that priority becoming realized and hope they will tap into the public cultivar developers’ opinions.

What changes have you seen in the land grant university system?

Leaner times for sure. Fewer people and increased competition for funds. But there is also a lot of positive change, see below!

What are our land grants doing right? What can be improved?

Speaking just about Cornell and my perspective, they have recognized the importance of sustainable and organic systems as an important area of research, serving that community of stakeholders and the potential of that community to contribute to the economy and welfare and future of our state and region. They have also embraced plant breeding and are doing their best to support us given the harsh realities in our economy.

What is your advice to new plant breeders entering the field?

I have all my students pick two crops and contrasting aspects of each to ensure they have breadth. For example, a student might work on genomics of quality in one crop and have an applied breeding project for disease resistance in another. Learn stats and practice your writing. Figure out what you like doing with your hands all day and have a plan for how you will continue to contribute when your body can’t keep up with you in the field.

Do you have a favorite plant variety? Why?

Honeynut. It’s a beautiful little butternut squash with a lot of quality brought in from buttercup. And, well… Rosebud.

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