Panhandle Perspectives - May 23, 2017

Did you know? Nebraska Played a Major Role in the Advancement of Plant Genetics and Crop Breeding
(Part I – Emerson and the Discovery of the Laws of Inheritance)

Robert M. Harveson, Extension Plant Pathologist, University of Nebraska Panhandle Research and Extension Center

Authors’s note: This story is Part 1 of a series describing the role of Nebraska students and faculty and their substantial contributions in the improvement of plant breeding and crop genetics. It focuses on Rollins Emerson and his pioneering research working with the genetics and breeding of the common bean and corn as model systems. Part 2 focuses on  F.D. Keim and the Nebraskan ties to the academic lineage of Rollins Emerson. Read it here.

This story starts with Rollins A. Emerson, born in Upstate New York in 1873, who moved as a child to Nebraska, where his family homesteaded near Kearney. He obtained a bachelor of science degree from the Agricultural College at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln in 1895, with the eminent botanist Charles E. Bessey as his mentor.

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Bob Harveson

Emerson worked in Washington, D.C., for several years as a horticultural editor with the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Office of Experiment Stations before returning to Lincoln in 1899 as the Horticulturalist with the Nebraska Experiment Station and Professor and Head of the Horticulture Department, where he began his distinguished career in genetic research, concentrating first on the common bean.

Emerson was one of the first American scientists to embrace the ideas of Gregor Mendel, also referred to as Mendelian genetics. These principles state that certain genetic traits are inherited or passed on to progeny from their parents, and were derived after carefully conducted experiments with garden peas.

After publishing his results in an obscure Austrian journal in 1866, Mendel’s work went unnoticed until 1900, when his publication was rediscovered independently by four scientists: Dutch botanist Hugo de Vries; German botanist and geneticist Carl Correns; Austrian agronomy graduate student Erich von Tschermak-Seysenegg; and American wheat breeder and economist William Jasper Spillman.

Emerson was awarded a Ph.D. in 1912 and became interested in corn research, moving to Cornell University in 1914 to head the Department of Plant Breeding. It was here over the next three decades that he achieved world renown as a pioneer corn geneticist. He eventually built a corn breeding and genetics dynasty, mentoring many brilliant young scientists who later became accomplished geneticists (as both researchers and teachers) in their own rights.

It is also very possible that Emerson might have become even more universally famous and recognized for his work had he been better-versed in the German language. Wayne F. Keim (another University of Nebraska and Cornell Plant Breeding alumnus) related a story to me that was told to him personally by Emerson.

Wayne Keim is the son of F. D. Keim, the namesake for Keim Hall, the building on East Campus now housing the Department of Agronomy and Horticulture. Although Emerson had retired before the elder Keim started graduate school at Cornell in 1947, he did meet and visit with Emerson on several occasions. On one of those encounters, Emerson informed Keim that he had seen Mendel’s paper on the landmark pea experiments in the late 1890s while still at Nebraska, but due to his lack of mastery of German, he was unable to fully understand the significance of Mendel’s paper published 35 years earlier.

Based on this conversation with Emerson, Keim then pondered: “how close was Rollins A. Emerson and the University of Nebraska College of Agriculture to being the ‘first discoverers’ rather than the three Europeans”?

To be continued. Next time: Nebraska played a major role in the advancement of plant genetics and crop breeding (Part II - Emerson’s Nebraska academic family tree)