Talking with a Plant Breeder (Podcast Transcript for Grounded by the Farm episode 207)

May 25, 2021

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Grounded by the Farm, Dr. Lee Hickey

Grounded by the Farm  00:01

Food is more than just what’s on our plate. It’s the places where it’s grown. It’s the people who grow it and so much more. Join me, Janice person, your host on Grounded by the Farm every other week as we talk about the foods we love. Hey, everybody, it is so weird to be interviewing this person. I met Lee Hickey, in the middle of nowhere Mexico. And yet at the same time, there were like crowds of people from all around the world who had come into this one little town. It’s in Sonora, it’s called over a gum. And it’s where a lot of breeding research was done. If you read into history and science, if you follow the Nobel Prize, you may have heard of a man named Norman Borlaug. Lee and I met in a wheat field in the middle of overgaard. And what’s so funny is you were on the other end of the microphone, you were not having to do an interview that day. And I had a friend of yours that I had on camera and a microphone. And I remember you given him a hard time later. Do you remember that?

Dr. Lee Hickey  01:08

I do. Yeah. It’s great to connect jennison again, since those years ago and in the wheat field and Mexico. Yeah, you’re right. We’re giving him a hard time. He was a wheat breeder from Morocco, actually. And but yeah, you were talking to him about some of the science and breeding. It was actually great to be there in Mexico, because that brought together all of these scientists working on wheat from around the world to celebrate Bulldogs birthday, which was pretty cool.

Grounded by the Farm  01:32

Yeah, it was one of those moments in history, I think, where I got to be someplace that other people were like, Oh, my God, I’ve always wanted to go there. And that’s a really ag nerd kind of place to even think Ooh, wow, I really want to go there. But it also explains a little bit about what you’re doing. I usually talk with farmers on the show and you’re not a farmer. And you didn’t grow up a farmer?

Dr. Lee Hickey  01:58

No, definitely not. I definitely grew up in the city. Yeah. In terms of my upbringing, I was very far from any phone.

Grounded by the Farm  02:04

I’m gonna go ahead and give the clue away. You are not from Mexico. Your accent does not relate to Mexico, either. You’re from Australia. Are you from Queensland? That’s where you are now.

Dr. Lee Hickey  02:15

That’s right. Yeah, I’m from Brisbane, pretty small city on the east coast of Australia, not too far from the Great Barrier Reef. So if you’ve heard of that before, it’s a beautiful place to go to.

Grounded by the Farm  02:27

Yeah, I think most Americans know Sydney, Brisbane, the Great Barrier Reef, and then there’s like everything else in Australia

Dr. Lee Hickey  02:36

is attending a tourism advertisement, isn’t it? Sorry.

Grounded by the Farm  02:40

Well, maybe Priscilla Queen at the desert gave you know, some of the Western territory sometimes. But when you’re doing work now in agriculture is Queensland like the biggest area for agriculture in Australia? Or are there other states that are really important?

Dr. Lee Hickey  02:56

Yeah, I mean, agriculture is very important for all the states of Australia, I guess. In Queensland, it’s quite tropical to subtropical. So the crops that we grow, are quite different to the southern states, which have a much cooler climate. Yeah, just different crops and different types of production, I’d say,

Grounded by the Farm  03:13

right, and what crops are you talking about working with? Or are you not really crops specific at

Dr. Lee Hickey  03:19

all? Yeah, well, I started off working a lot on the genetics and breeding of wheat and barley. That’s the two main cereal crops that we grow here in Australia. It’s very dry. wheat and barley have great crops. They’re pretty drought Hardy, I’d say. But, you know, one of the priorities is trying to make them even more drought tolerant, and use water smarter on farm. But more and more, we’re moving to working on some of the exciting technologies, that we can help speed up the development of our crops, and really working across crops, in general, because these technologies are universal in how they can be applied to different species.

Grounded by the Farm  03:57

Yeah, I’m gonna admit that at one time, before I worked for a Seed Company, I can remember even working in agriculture, I had no idea of the amount of plant breeding work that was going on and why that was going on and what it delivers for farmers or what it delivers for people like me, do you have an easy way of explaining that?

Dr. Lee Hickey  04:18

Yeah, well, I I’d say, you know, if we travel back in time, you know, the original plant breeder was the farmer. In fact, over hundreds and or sometimes, depending on the crop 1000s of years, farmers selected and retained their most productive plants, and they grew them, you know, the next season. And essentially, that’s what gave rise to what we call land races are many of our crop species. And it’s really only been the last 100 years that we’ve actually started more targeted plant breeding. So actually making targeted crosses, you know, crossing one plant with another one that has those different desirable traits and applying intensive selection. To improve productivity and all the different traits, and even traits like flavor and an end use quality, which is really important for a lot of our foods,

Grounded by the Farm  05:09

one of the talks that I heard you give, I think it was at the university there in Queensland, you talked through sort of broccoli and brussel sprouts and kale. That’s probably one of the best examples of plant breeding it was forever ago. But would you mind explaining that because I think it helps people understand, at least in principle, what plant breeding does.

Dr. Lee Hickey  05:32

That’s right. You know, when when people hear this for the first time, it really blows their mind that a lot of vegetables that we have all come from the same plant, they’re essentially they’re all brassicas, brassica. oleracea, is the original plant, and through plant breeding and selection for different traits with created crops, or food crops like broccoli, brussel sprouts, and just by selecting for, you know, different attributes. So to create brussel sprouts, there was a selection for bugs, stems from broccoli. And, you know, it’s pretty amazing how, you know, we can create the whole range of different vegetables that look like totally different species, but they all come from the same plant.

Grounded by the Farm  06:17

And it’s crazy. Yeah, I mean, it’s kale, cabbage, broccoli, cauliflower, brussel sprouts, I mean, it’s like this wild combination of things, and all of it, because somebody looked at the plant and said, I really liked that part. Or that part seems great on this plant. And let’s save some seed and plant that and do the best of the stems, if they were a broccoli lover, or the buds if they were Brussel, sprouts lover,

Dr. Lee Hickey  06:47

they don’t exist in the wild, you know, humans have literally created these, these plants that we eat almost every day, and are pretty nutritious and pretty good for it, right. So it’s pretty amazing what plant breeding can do,

Grounded by the Farm  07:00

right. And so then when you move it to a scale that we’re on the day, we’re not necessarily coming up with new vegetables, although sometimes people do. But you’ll do things like I remember talking to a bell pepper breeder. And he wanted to make sure that the bell pepper had four lobes so that if you wanted to step the bell pepper would sit evenly on the pan and not fall over. Because a stuffed bell pepper, once it’s fall, fallen over, it’s not gonna look great on the plane. It’s very practical. So there’s some of us things. There’s also some things that are around flavor, or whatever. But in every crop around the world, there are always people working in plant breeding. And we’re going to talk to another one soon, that’s actually working in Morocco. We’re going to talk to Priyanka death this summer. Oh, well, she’s going to talk to us a little bit about some of the work over there. But I just wanted to make sure that people kind of understood that because before we get into the rest of your story of what all you’re doing, it’s a good idea to understand plant breeding at the basic level.

Dr. Lee Hickey  08:01

Yeah, that’s right. And, and so this is a constant effort to try to select and improve these traits. And when we think about a lot of our broadacre crops, like maize and wheat bread, plant breeders are constantly trying to improve traits like disease resistance, diseases, these pathogens are constantly mutating, and overcoming resistances that we breed into their crops. So, you know, this is a pretty big challenge, we’ve often got to go back to these rather ancient land races for a new diversity for resistances, and all sorts of traits, and then cross them or breed them back into modern materials. It’s a similar challenge we face around climate change as well, we need polar array of new traits to basically equip our crops with these mechanisms that make them more robust in the face of warmer temperatures, more frequent drought episodes. And so you know, a lot of the materials we have stored and preserved away in gene banks, around the world are really valuable materials for this purpose.

Grounded by the Farm  09:03

Yes, you’re talking about drought and pest and stuff. And seriously, you remind me of having worked with some cotton breeders gunda, windy and narrow Brian and some other places. And it just made me kind of laugh because I think Australia is like a prime place to do plant breeding. Because, I mean, you guys have more things that want to kill us. You have all the problems like drought and really bad diseases that come in on plants. You guys really know how to challenge plants and people.

Dr. Lee Hickey  09:33

Yeah, it’s a tough place in Australia. It’s very dry. The rainfall is extremely variable. And if we think of a crop like cotton, there wouldn’t be a cotton industry in Australia if we didn’t have technology like GM traits. So, you know, we’re talking about insect resistance and Roundup Ready. And so a lot of people in the public maybe don’t quite understand how these traits work for the environment and for the farm and preserve Water and making all this possible. But it’s pretty amazing what these type of traits can do in terms of productivity in an agricultural system to make it more sustainable.

Grounded by the Farm  10:09

I think you’ve worked a lot on drought, haven’t you? That’s been one of the areas that that you’ve worked on, maybe more than others. Yeah,

Dr. Lee Hickey  10:17

that’s right. We have a strong drought theme. I think my lab here in Brisbane, really looking at ways we can deploy different traits and technologies to improve the drought adaptation of our crops. There’s no magical gene for drought resistance. It’s all about how you use water more in a smarter way. For the season to produce a crop,

Grounded by the Farm  10:38

I want to kind of come back and talk a little bit about how you found your way into agriculture. Because you’re like, so deep into PhDs in plant breeding, and things like that, that it’s hard for me, you said earlier that you grew up in the city, and we’re really far away from farms. How did you make those connections somehow, because now you’re sitting here telling me about this in depth throughout research?

Dr. Lee Hickey  11:05

That’s right. It’s a bit of a strange, strange story, I’d say I grew up in the city. And I was pretty strange kid, I suppose that I was pretty obsessed with my veggie patch. And growing vegetables in the backyard. I don’t know how that came about. I would literally, you know, run home from school to attend my veggie patch. That’s how keen I was. And, you know, I’d be looking in all the growing guys and the time of selling so the different vegetables and the row spacing to maximize yield. And yeah, I guess that curiosity for growing food and yeah, just giving it to my parents or their neighbor was kind of cool. And I like this a lot. I guess that’s what sparked this passion, I suppose.

Grounded by the Farm  11:50

I think it’s really interesting. I remember as a kid our family garden together, it was really cool to harvest your own food and be able to eat it. I think maybe I ate some vegetables that I may not have been as interested in had I not grown them myself. But it was really kind of cool to be able to see that outcome like you do this and and plant growing a plant to feed yourself. You see it in months, and maybe weeks on some, whereas it doesn’t take years like plant breeding. So you get a little reward on the way right?

Dr. Lee Hickey  12:26

Yeah, definitely. Yes. Well, I was particularly good at growing showcase. I don’t know whether you’ve tried choco It’s a type of vegetable that grows on the vine. And it’s odd it’s just terrible to eat is very bland it I would say it’s disgusting about it, I would basically produce so many chocos and trying to give them away to the neighbors they refuse them so

Grounded by the Farm  12:49

in the US we have zucchini is that that’s what everybody does with their zucchini squash. Yeah, there’s so many they like put them on your your doorstep at night. When you when you don’t know they’re there, you suddenly find more and more of them showing up. Exactly, exactly. I love it. I love it. So you were really good at it. I think you’re part of agriculture and you’re part of plant breeding is a specially the kind of part that could get people who don’t necessarily know agriculture very well interested. So you get all the cool toys, you do something called speed breeding. And do you have disco lights in the like, greenhouses and stuff?

Dr. Lee Hickey  13:35

That’s right. It’s a catchy name called speed breeding, but it kind of resembles a disco. For the plants, essentially, what we’re doing is were growing plants under 22 hours light. So it’s almost continuous, like we give them a little period of dock to rest, you know, it’s pretty different to what they experienced in the field, or in a in a paddock or in your backyard. You know, this extra light is triggering early flowering, and enables us to grow a really fast crop. So essentially, this becomes a really powerful tool to turn over generations that are needed for the plant breeding process. We’re talking about, you know, reducing the timeframe or developing a new variety for a farmer to grow from, say about, you know, 12 years, down to seven or eight years.

Grounded by the Farm  14:25

I just want to say it’s sort of happens in nature within the northern hemisphere. If you go up to Alaska, there’s a certain period of the year where you can get really big plants or really big vegetables and things like that, because you have such photo intense days in the same in the far southern hemisphere at different times, but it’s a very short window.

Dr. Lee Hickey  14:47

That’s right. And so this is all about controlling the photo period, the light, the light, quality, the temperature, controlling those factors all year round, to rapidly cycle these crops. And so we’re talking about growing up to six generations a year for most of our crop species where the technique has been optimized, yeah, I’ve been working with different plant breeders and organizations around the world to help set up these facilities. For a whole range of different crops. We’re targeting crops like millet and sorghum, and wheat, barley, even starting to work on banana breeding, we can really develop these techniques for any, any type of plant,

Grounded by the Farm  15:25

I giggle a bit as you say, banana. But in parts of Africa, that’s a primary starch in a diet. So you know, it’s it’s really important that we’re doing research on some of the foods that are culturally important in different parts of the world. It’s just for us bananas are typically a snack or something you add to breakfast cereal, or something like that. And then some parts of the world that are much more important part of the diet.

Dr. Lee Hickey  15:50

Yes, I have a banana every day for breakfast. And look, banana breeding is pretty challenging, because we’re bred out its ability to produce seed. No one wants seed in their bananas. However, the big challenges, there’s a big problem with Fusarium, that is a disease that attacks banana. And so we really have to bring in new sources of resistance into our modern banana varieties. And I guess, you know, these technologies like speed breeding can help speed up that process, right. And

Grounded by the Farm  16:18

so fusarium. And other diseases can either cause the plant to wilt, they’ll get a bacteria that creates a fungus. And basically, it’s starts to interfere with its ability to process light and photosynthesis is that

Dr. Lee Hickey  16:32

that’s right it the mycelium, basically, the pathogen clogs up the whole plant, and the plant can’t suck up water. So that causes the wilting and eventually results in death of the entire plant, and then it can wipe out wipe out an entire crop, it spreads very rapidly. So it’s a pretty terrible disease.

Grounded by the Farm  16:51

And it’s certainly I think a lot of people have heard about, like the Irish potato famine and things like that. So and bananas, there’s not a lot of genetic diversity, like it’s very closely related, right?

Dr. Lee Hickey  17:04

Yeah, that’s right. And now going back to some of the world of an honors for sources of resistance is great. But to transfer those resistances through so many cycles of crossing, then is very, very time consuming. You know, we’re talking decades here. So that’s why I guess some of the new technologies like genome editing can help us modify some of these key genes that are needed for disease resistance directly in the elite varieties.

Grounded by the Farm  17:34

Is that part of the Nobel Prize winning work this year on CRISPR? And some things like that, right. Some researchers in California, I think, Jennifer Doudna,

Dr. Lee Hickey  17:44

yeah, you’re right. That’s right. It was It is very exciting. And the applications to plant breeding, in terms of traits that are characteristics that can be targeted, virtually unlimited,

Grounded by the Farm  17:56

there’s a really good book, I’m gonna have to remind myself what the book is. But there’s a great book on that whole topic, because I think CRISPR, it can sound hard to apply. If you’re not familiar with Plant Breeding, and you’re not really familiar with this science and stuff. The potential though is if you find something in plants that’s causing it a big problem, you might be able to kind of cut that one little tiny thing out,

Dr. Lee Hickey  18:22

that’s right is a, there’s two main components side, and an enzyme for cutting the DNA. And so the guide is a sequence that tells the enzyme where to cut the DNA. And that can be very, very precise. So we’re talking about, you know, modifications in a known gene. And so if you compare this to the old school technology, of just, you know, shooting in a gene, anywhere in the genome, it literally goes in randomly anywhere. And you know, you could be causing other sorts of problems as well. But this new technology is so precise, and refined, it’s very exciting, you know, improving our, you know, agricultural crops and animals that we grow on farms.

Grounded by the Farm  19:05

And I think part of it that’s really cool is because the other type was a little less precise, there had to be a huge amount of testing that went on to find out where you had problems and things like that. And because of the precision of this on the front end, you don’t have to do as much screening, you can check it pretty quickly. And you know, it’s pretty damn good.

Dr. Lee Hickey  19:27

That’s right, the the, the, the modifications to the to the gene that can be created in this way, very similar to or virtually undetectable, or you cannot tell the difference between this type of change and naturally occurring mutation. So that’s how good it is. plant breeders have taken advantage of natural mutations occurring up until now and the farmers when they were breeding the original varieties 1000s of years ago, I guess we’re just using this technology now to to induce these mutations where exactly where we want them to To make the process a bit more efficient, yeah,

Grounded by the Farm  20:01

yeah. Let’s talk about one of the other super cool versions of what you guys do. You guys fly drones a lot. What are you doing with those? Because it really looks fun. Yeah. But what what are you doing from, you’re not just chasing, um, you know, having races in the field. But there’s a lot of actual work going on with drones in agriculture, oh,

Dr. Lee Hickey  20:25

we’re just getting cool Instagram videos really. Where we’re actually doing work, what we’re doing is we’re feeding drones or UI, these pretty high tech sensors, you might have heard of remote sensing, which is done, which can be done from space using satellites. The ua, the or drone technology is gotten so advanced that pretty much you can anyone can buy a drone and fly it now, mostly without crashing it. And the sensors that we can fit with these drones have also advanced rapidly. So we’re talking about sensors that can capture different wavelengths, and even temperature, which is really critical, or pretty important for measuring different traits in the field that we’re interested in. So, you know, trades around measuring the canopy of the crop to determine how drought resistant it is, how much stress is experiencing in a particular environment, we can use these sensors to capture very vast amounts of information and data that we can use to help support our selections in the breeding program.

Grounded by the Farm  21:31

And when I see those pictures come back, they I know they’re their maps, or they they show all this stuff that they’ve been sensing. But sometimes you say the canopy on cotton, the leaves are normally somewhat parallel to the ground, when they’re doing well. If they’ve dropped down to where they’re more of like at an angle, then you know, it’s drought stress, if you’re able to look at the different crops, right, if you’re looking at different plants, but in a field, that’s hundreds of acres, and you’ve got various different varieties, or hybrids and things out there to have this thing be able to fly through there and pick up that kind of information and detail throughout the season all the time, without you having to write it in a notebook and then try and put it in a computer in a spreadsheet.

Dr. Lee Hickey  22:21

Oh, absolutely. I mean, plant breeding is a numbers game. So we’re talking about evaluating 1000s and 1000s of different lions in one field. And you’re right, it’s very labor intensive, we either need a whole army of people to evaluate those 1000s of lines, or now we can use drones fitted with these sensors to more efficiently capture that information. And one of the exciting thing around the technology too, is measuring traits, that the human eye can’t see things like a thermal temperature for the canopy can be indicative of stress that the human plant breeder wouldn’t have been able to select and identify in the past. So it can make this whole selection process much more efficient as well.

Grounded by the Farm  23:07

In a year, where so many of us have had a thermometer put on our foreheads or something to see if we can go in for a haircut or whatever, it makes a lot of sense, right? You’re talking about a drone that’s flying over the crop that has that same kind of sensing ability, and it can tell whether the plant is already heating up. And sometimes it’s based on the soil that’s there. Sometimes it’s based on the variety. So we still need really smart people to work with all the technology. Yeah,

Dr. Lee Hickey  23:34

yeah, you’re right. Well, yeah, this is certainly the era of big data. And, you know, going on the days where even in this field, plant breeders can walk around the field, visually make selections, or at least rely on this, you know, we’re capturing vast amounts of genomic data through sequencing, and all this data from our UI v platforms or drawing platforms, you know, the skill sets that we need is really around analyzing and interpreting that big data. You know, coding is pretty important. Like a lot of fields.

Grounded by the Farm  24:06

Yeah, right now we’re in the process of planting in the US. You guys have been trying to finish that harvest. Does that right? Yeah. For some crops.

Dr. Lee Hickey  24:15

So the summer crops just finished. No sorghum and mung beans. We grow a lot here. Not so many soybeans here in Australia. We have, I guess, less rain. And so yeah, they’re just finished harvesting these crops and about to play in the winter crops. So wheat and barley are just being sown by our farmers at the moment.

Grounded by the Farm  24:35

Yeah, I think wheat and barley are the ones that here we’ve we’ve had some really good years and then some years the winter just doesn’t cooperate very well. Right. You miss the rains or you get flooded? Either way. Yeah, yeah. But we’ve actually talked about barley with not only a farmer who had good barley, but one of the places in Nashville that buys barley from him for craft beer. They make so we’re trying to pass along a lot of those kind of tips and information to folks too.

Dr. Lee Hickey  25:06

Yeah, well, I mean, who doesn’t like a craft beer?


I mean, I mean,

Grounded by the Farm  25:09

if you’re gonna be traveling around, you’re, you’re probably going to want to drink. So stop and get something nice and local. Well, that kind of covers the topics I had, I do want to let people know we’re gonna put links in so your lab is called the Hickey lab at the University of Queensland. Right? That’s right, we’ll share that there was a recent podcast you were on that goes more depth on plant breeding and some of the things you’re doing. I’ve got the TED talks that you’ve done. Are there some other ways that people ought to get in touch with you?

Dr. Lee Hickey  25:42

Yeah, it’s I mean, it’s a curious, you can reach out to me on Twitter, I’m on Twitter, my handle is at Dr. hico. So the H i k o v, I use a lot of social media to promote some of our science and communicate this, the things that we’re up to, so might see you alive. I

Grounded by the Farm  25:58

think that the role of science, Twitter has gotten unbelievably awesome. I mean, the number of scientists that are out there communicating different things blows me away, and I love being able to connect to people directly. And a lot of the time, you know, when we put this stuff up on our website, people will then want to go check these folks out, you know, then they can see what kind of test you’re doing. I know you guys do a good job of sharing, here’s what’s happening in the field in sort of real time. So I’d encourage people find you on Twitter, really, thanks so much for having me. So everybody that gets the end of the conversation with Lee, I’m gonna put some of this app all the links in the show notes and on Grounded by the Farm calm, please tell your friends if they have kids that are interested in technology and may be interested in plants that we need more people like them in this field of agriculture and technology. I don’t know if you guys have thought about it. But we’ve got a lot of food to grow for ourselves and our neighbors over the coming decades. And we need more young, smart people in the industry with us. So get them connected up. They can also look at Grounded by the Farm. We’re trying to do more things for kids there to help them find the excitement of agriculture that people like Lee and I have learned. Thanks, leaf so much for joining us here today. It was so good to have you on the show and talk about Plant Breeding, and the sense of discovery and interest and always finding new things to learn in the world. We talked a little bit about that from the childhood perspective. But I think a lot of us curious well into adulthood. I know I certainly love to discover new things and learn new things. We are this summer going to have an intern working with us on some of this space of education and children and how to bring more of the kind of content we’ve produced here at Grounded by the Farm make that more accessible to parents who are homeschooling or who are teachers who are interested in getting agriculture into their classroom. You have any ideas around that if you’ve got things that your children have thought really stand out in our episode, or if you’re a younger listener, and you’ve thought there were some things that really stood out to you, or other things you’ve learned at school, other materials that you think we ought to be aware of, please share that with us. You can find the contact form on Grounded by the But you can also get us by email at Grounded by the Farm at G Thanks so much. We’ll be back in two weeks with another episode and look forward to talking with you then.

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