Great Strides, Small Steps
It makes perfect sense that Blake Meyers runs marathons.
Training for a marathon is a lot like working in plant science: you have to be patient, take a dedicated approach, and get deep satisfaction from planning and preparedness. In both disciplines, it takes time to see results, and progress is made by building on what came before.
A Field on the Brink
When Blake entered the field in 1989, the foundation had been laid and the possibilities were wide open. Molecular biology was on the cusp of amazing things. The field of science that deals with the molecules necessary to sustain life’s most essential functions was on the brink of revolution.
At the time, genome sequencing didn’t yet exist. Within a few years, however, major discoveries and advancements ushered in a new age of genomics, with amazing implications for plant scientists and agriculture at large.
Researchers like Blake began work on some of the field’s most historically ambitious goals — goals like using plants to address global food security and improve the environment.
Right Place, Right Time
By the time Blake started graduate school, molecular biology was entering its most exciting period in history. Within a few years, scientists were figuring out ways to sequence entire genomes, an advance in understanding that has staggering implications for biology.
Shortly after he graduated, he had the opportunity to work on a team that had access to the most advanced DNA sequencing equipment in the field. For the first time, it was possible to detect small-RNA relatives of DNA on a large scale, transforming our understanding of DNA.
Today, that same technology helps researchers like Blake pinpoint the precise genes associated with certain traits that could put the future they envision within reach — a future with crops that can both feed the world and heal the planet.
Helping Breeders on the Front Lines
Today, Blake and his team focus on understanding plant genomes through the types of RNA they produce. Specifically, they specialize in plant sex. (Yes, you read that right.) Their goal is to enable the hybridization of entirely new crops by understanding the mechanisms underlying pollen development.
In the world of hybrid crops, corn is the model everyone tries to follow. Within 30 years of its introduction in the early 20th century, more than 90 percent of corn grown in the U.S. was hybrid. Today, nearly all of the maize planted in most parts of the world is hybrid.
The challenge of achieving hybrids, however, is that many crops self-pollinate. Blake and his team are looking for ways to prevent that, with an eye toward staple crops like corn, wheat, and soybeans.
If they’re successful, they could help breeders deliver solutions to farmers that would raise standards of living, reduce our dependence on water, protect the soil, and provide nutritious crops for communities around the world.