Academic journal article The Science Teacher

An Interview with Plant Geneticist John Stommel

Academic journal article The Science Teacher

An Interview with Plant Geneticist John Stommel

Article excerpt

Byline: Megan Sullivan

Bonus Points

Education: B.S., Biology; Ph.D., Plant Breeding and Plant Genetics

On the web: USDA Agricultural Research Service (

Related careers: geneticist, agricultural engineer, nutritionist, food technologist, botanist, horticulturist, plant buyer

Gregor Mendel's work with pea plants in the 1800s established theories of heredity and long-standing genetic principles. Scientists have come a long way in understanding the inheritance of traits at the molecular level, gene interaction, and environmental influences. As technology advances, so does the ability to better appreciate genetic diversity. Plant geneticists, such as John Stommel, use traditional research and biotechnology-based approaches to develop plants with improved quality, nutritive value, consumer appeal, disease resistance, stress tolerance, and productivity.

What does a plant geneticist do?

Most people are aware of the work that scientists around the world are doing to sequence the human genome and its impact on research in the medical community. Similar efforts are underway in major crop plants, enabling us to identify and better use the genes that account for diversity in plant communities.

At the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Vegetable Laboratory, we conduct basic research to help us understand the genetic and physiological basis for a particular trait-such as nutritive value, culinary quality, or disease resistance-and use that knowledge in applied research to develop an improved cultivated plant (cultivar) that benefits farmers and consumers. Basic research may involve using classical genetics and molecular biology. In applied research, we use traditional plant breeding, genetics, and biotechnology-based approaches.

Describe current projects.

My research program focuses on genetic improvement-primarily in fruit quality and nutritive value-of the tomato, pepper, and eggplant. All three species have many wild relatives, which in turn have a variety of attributes such as fruit color, vitamin content, flavor components, and processing quality. The genetic diversity of the wild relatives presents opportunities not only to improve conventional forms of the species, but also to develop novel forms not available in the market. …

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