October 12, 2011

Inventing Tomorrow’s Plants

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Ask Prof. Michael Mazourek, plant breeding and genetics, what he does for a living, and he will tell you he is an inventor. But rather than inventing weird gadgets, Mazourek invents edible creations: From pink-striped melons to black-and-white cucumbers, the cutting edge in food innovation is growing in fields all around Cornell’s campus, and Mazourek is among the not-so-mad scientists behind it.

As a plant geneticist, Mazourek engineers cross-pollination between different types of vegetables to produce new offspring with combinations of desirable characteristics. “I ask, ‘What do people want? What do growers want?’” he said recently, having just returned from a day in a butternut squash field, examining 600 different crossbred plants to find the most desirable variations.

Mazourek breeds plants for a variety of characteristics, including disease resistance, attractive exterior and, of course, taste. He described one of the butternut variations, which incorporates the genes of an exotic Thai melon. Usually, Mazourek said, he and his wife taste his creations, and often roast the squash with honey or sugar. However, some of his new variations are so sweet that additional sugary flavor isn’t necessary. Instead, Mazourek cuts the squash in half and roasts it in the oven with a bit of butter for a “phenomenal” meal.

Other favorite projects include a variety of habanero peppers that lack the extreme heat of ordinary breeds while retaining a pleasant spiciness. This breed was dubbed “habonada.” Similarly, Mazourek received samples of red ripe jalapenos from a fellow scientist at Texas A&M that had been engineered for mildness. Mazourek says he ate them by the handful after roasting them in a special rotating chili roaster built for him by a friend at Cornell.

Mazourek’s work, still in its early stages, has not yet appeared in restaurants, but he didn’t rule out the possibility that it might one day brighten up the drab dining hall food around campus. In the meantime, his undergraduate students in Introduction to Horticulture enjoy tasting and evaluating the creations.

Mazourek described his work as particularly rewarding in the “general sense of wonder” that comes with experimentation and creation. He also noted that his work increases the viability of local and organic food. He engineers food specifically to grow in the short growing season of upstate New York without   pesticides and other chemicals.“One of the great things that local does is it makes people aware of where everything comes from. You start to think about how your choices affect … the world,” he said.

Mazourek described the tradition, at Cornell and beyond, of continuously studying and improving the way we feed our society.“All through history we depended on continual improvement of plants,” he said. “I’m continuing that.”

Original Author: Eliza LaJoie