“DIVERSITY” IS HOW many of something you have, and “genetic” references genes. These are the chemical compounds inside plants and animals that tell them how to grow and how to live, whether they should be colored or not, tall or short, fast- or slow-growing, resistant to pests, able to grow under drought and many other char- acteristics. Genetic diversity is all about how many different genes there are in an organism and all the many possibilities those allow. Let’s look at the genetic diversity of corn, for example, with Frank Kutka, North Dakota Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education (SARE) program coordinator. Corn has a great deal of genetic diversity, says Kutka who also serves as assistant director for North Dakota’s Dickinson Research Extension Center. There’s dent corn, or common field corn, which has a dimple at the top of the seed and is mostly yellow or reddish in color. Another corn population has genes for red and yellow, but not for the dent; these are very hard kernels, called flint corn. Some corn has genes for a dark red color and tiny seeds, and a gene that helps them to pop when they get very hot. Corn also has genes that can make for huge kernels, like that found in cusco gigante. Some genes can make the kernel very soft and some genes make the kernel white. There are even genes when in the right combination make the kernel absolutely black. “Corn has many thousands of genes and all of these different chemical signals can make for some incredible diversity,” Kutka says. “Not only can there be different varieties with their own traits, but some populations also carry many, many genes and have incredible genetic diversity — colors ranging from white and red to blue and black and from stripes to dots, and big to small. This genetic diversity explains why the world around us looks like it does. “There are many, many different combinations of genes, which play out to form the many different kinds of plants and animals and things that we see around us every day.” When plant breeders or farmers choose the seed to plant, they are also choosing which genes to pass on, Kutka shares. He says it’s this kind of selection that is the very basis for plant breeding. “Farmers and plant breeders have been making these kinds of selections and improving the types of plants we grow for many thousands of years,” Kutka says. Diversity Gives Depth Unlike any other manufacturing industry, plant breeders, farmers and those in the seed industry cannot design a new variety from a white sheet of paper. Think about it, says Jean-Christophe Gouache, International Seed Federation (ISF) president: The design engineer at BMW or Toyota is not sitting down and working from an old blueprint. They are working from a clean slate to deliver innovative, new vehicles to the market. “Plant breeders do not have this luxury,” says Gouache, who started his career as a corn breeder. “I cannot design or invent something with a white sheet of paper and a pen. You don’t design a new car with two existing older models staring you in the face, but plant breeders do design a new variety from at least two existing varieties or populations they mix. It’s from here that everything starts.” Simply put: “Crop diversity is essential for life on earth. JUNE 2018 SEEDWORLD.COM / 27