Plant Breeding

How do scientists create new varieties of maize? Plant breeding!

Plant breeding is the purposeful selection, growth, and cross-pollination of particular plants. This differs from natural selection in that, in nature, plants that do better in a particular environment will set seed and pass on the genes that made them successful in that environment. Plant breeders, on the other hand, select those plants that have qualities that are desired by humans: bigger fruit, higher yield, particular flavors (see section on domestication). Early farmers did this simply by saving seed from those plants they thought had good characteristics.

Plant breeders take this further by cross-pollinating plants (manually placing pollen from one plant on the stigma of another) that have desirable characteristics, harvesting the resulting seed, and selecting new individuals that have combined desirable traits from both parents. This process can be continued until the plant breeder feels the resulting plants are ready to be sold as a new variety.

Plant breeding, and therefore crop improvement, depends on genetic variation. Cross-pollinating plants that are similar cannot result in continued improvement.

Definition: Intellectual property. Property that is the result of original creative thought, including creative, artistic and commercial ideas, which may be protected by patents, copyright, trademarks and trade secrets. Plant variety protection (PVP) is a contentious and complicated issue.

USDA Agricultural Marketing Service
Food and Agricultural Organization