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Geneticist suggests solution to political gridlock


Glut stage is like flood stage.

The only difference is what there’s too much of.

This fall, we’re at glut stage in two things: Corn and politics.

The first is measured in bushels, and a 14 billion-bushel harvest seems possible. The second is measured in shovels-full and seems to be rising faster than the national debt.

Let’s all for a moment to give thanks for nature’s infinite wisdom in making the prevailing winds in our nation blow from west to east.

Thank you.

Despite circumstances that called for the pause, I confess to having felt a recent surge of optimism about our political future.

It’s based on my discovery of our how our production of shovels-full might be reduced by following the advice of the son of a Clark County sharecropper who long ago built the foundation for this year’s booming corn harvest.

Without being told he was born in 1874, some might guess George Harrison Shull was named for a prominent musician from Liverpool, England.

Not so. But there is this connection: If the Beatles revolutionized the world of music, George Harrison Shull revolutionized the world of agriculture.

No less a luminary than James Watson, who with Francis Crick discovered the double helix of human genetics. Watson said this:

“In a true sense corn genetics all started in Cold Springs Harbor (N.Y.) when George Shull came here.”

That was in 1904.

A fuller explanation of Shull’s groundbreaking work and improbable rise will appear in an article in Monday’s News-Sun.

For today’s purposes, I’ll just say that the astounding increases in crop yield since the 1930s are largely due to Shull’s two-step genetic technique:

1. Inbreeding two separate strains of corn over generations to reduce each plant to its purest characteristics.

2. Cross-breeding those pure strains into a hybrid, allowing the strong characteristics of each to overwhelm the weaker characteristics of the other, making a more vibrant and productive plant.

To get to the purebred stage, of course, requires living for a time with the problems of inbreeding, which tends to producer sicklier, less productive plants before they’re joined in a healthy hybrid.

The question of whether time is yet ripe for the cross pollination of Nancy Pelosi and John Boehner to produce a hybrid legislator with more desirable characteristics is thus a theoretical possibility.

A moment’s pause, however, and we realize doing so presents a certain moral hazard and a substantial risk for unintended consequences.

Fortunately, Shull’s story points to another solution that seems more promising.

In a 1998 edition of “Perspectives,” the magazine of the Genetics Society of America, the late associate editor James Crow told the story of a sharp disagreement Shull had with another of the emerging giants of corn hybrids, E.M. East of Connecticut State College.

East was so convinced by Shull’s basic insight, that he confessed “I … wonder why I have been so stupid as not to see the fact myself.”

Still, he thought Shull’s idea was almost wholly impractical.

As Crow explains, “the puny inbred lines (of corn) produced such small quantities of seed” that raising enough of them to make hybrid seed for mass planting was far too expensive.

“The great cost of seed, he thought, negated any increased yield of the hybrids.”

The two parties soon found themselves squarely at odds and in danger of having a showdown that likely would have been repeated over and over again, trapping them in an ultimately destructive drama that could have dragged on indefinitely.

In 1910, in the face of this “strong disagreement,” Crow writes, Shull and East “agreed not to let this become an open debate nor to let personalities intrude” as events unfolded.

Adds Crow, “They remained true to their word.”

The parallel seems simple: If we could agree to govern like we raise corn — with an eye toward productivity — things might work out.

And it seems all the more persuasive if the alternative involves cross-pollination.

I’m just sayin’ ….


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