Sandy and Tiina, in Montfavet, near Avignon, France
We had a small diversion in our sporting calendar to the south of France; we were invited to participate in a meeting convened by the Global Crop Diversity Trust (http://www.croptrust.org/) to discuss how the diversity of eggplant wild relatives could be conserved. The eggplant or aubergine is a species of Solanum – Solanum melongena, and although not very physically similar to potato (Solanum tuberosum) or tomato (Solanum lycopersicum) it does have genetic similarities.
We worked hard, our days were not quite as physically demanding as those in the Tour de France ascent of the nearby Mont Ventoux (left out of the 2012 Tour), but we made a lot of progress! One fascinating fact is that in English, French biologists refer to our vegetable aubergine as the eggplant – just goes to show how language exchange can be pretty random!
Christine Daunay of INRA (http://www.international.inra.fr/), Jaime Prohens of the Universitat Politècnica de València (http://www.upv.es), Hannes Dempewolf of the Trust along with Tiina and I talked about the taxonomy of wild eggplants (based on the work of Maria Vorontsova), the state of seed collections of wild eggplants and what eggplant breeders need to improve the crop, especially in the face of climate change.
Despite its importance as a world crop, the community of plant breeders working on eggplant are few and far between – it is clear from the meeting that future collaboration with colleagues in India and China – the home of eggplant domestication – will be critical. The wild relatives of the crop are from Africa and future collecting to understand their ranges and environmental tolerances will be important for eggplant improvement. This is where the world of taxonomy intersects with the world of plant breeding and agriculture – knowledge from wild relatives can really help with problems faced by those in agriculture, not just in terms of genes that can be introduced into crops from wild relatives, but in understanding adaptation to different environments and habitats.
Our colleague Christine keeps a collection of seeds of wild relatives of eggplants, and we toured her fields and greenhouses – reminding us that Solanum species are more amazing than imaginable – truly paradoxical plants!
We returned to London and Edinburgh via TGV (Train à Grand Vitesse – and it is really fast!) through the French countryside and came back to an excited Britain – lots had happened while we were deep in discussing food. Time to catch up with all the other action!