In 2005, Chris was managing the University’s Seed Certification Program when approached by an administrator who considered pulling the plug on the two cold-storage facilities preserving seed. The systems are expensive to operate. Chris was to document the coolers’ inventories.
“All of Dr. Ogle’s legacy was still in the germ plasm facility there near campus,” Chris says.
Chris needed breeders’ documentation to know exactly what was in all those drawers of seeds. He called Roy, who still had a large stack of books documenting every cross he made during 30 years of plant breeding at Clemson. Roy could recite his experiments from memory. He directed Chris to SC84-319. That seed stemmed from a cross Roy made during his first year at Clemson in 1957.
Chris was a bit skeptical. “He hadn’t consulted any notes or anything,” Chris says.
“I took those books and went back to the cooler, and I started looking through those drawers, and lo and behold, I found 84 dash 319, and so I planted some out that spring.”
The seed had sat dormant in the cold-storage facility for 21 years. Fearing the seeds wouldn’t germinate, Chris planted them densely. He had to thin out the plants as the seeds surprised him with their vigor.
Chris and Roy scouted the fields together weekly at that point, making sure each plant had the true traits of 84-319 — large seeds, disease resistance and purple hulls, among other attributes.
“That’s the art of plant breeding. You have to be able to look at a row of plants and recognize the one that’s different in a good way,” Chris says. “You have to have a good eye.”
Today’s plant breeding program is much different than the one Roy knew. When Chris was starting out, the University had two breeders working with peaches and soybeans. Today, Clemson’s Advanced Plant Technology Program includes more than 20 world-class researchers stationed around South Carolina using the latest technologies in genetics, genomics, bioinformatics, computational biology and robotics to develop superior-performing crop varieties that will boost farming income.
“There were no transgenic crops when Dr. Ogle was working. That hadn’t been invented yet,” Chris says of the process of engineering desired traits into a plant’s DNA. Today, breeders can identify genetic markers in plants and toss out the ones without desired traits immediately. Roy had to identify plants with favorable traits and breed them together by crossing flowers, then growing thousands of plants year after year to select the best plants to carry forward. What took Roy five or more years, could be done in a year now, Chris says.
Roy has watched the evolution of plant breeding throughout his retirement. “When they first started talking about gene splicing, I thought that was pie-in-the-sky thinking, and it would never happen, but it did happen,” Roy remembers. “But you know what? It still takes a plant breeder. These modern companies still employ plant breeders.” The breeder, he says, is still needed to identify the desirable traits to build useful plants.
Roy mastered that art. He developed hundreds of seed lines at Clemson and hit a few homeruns, in part, because he took so many at bats. That’s the persistence and patience needed of a good plant breeder.
“I was committed to doing work that was slow and tedious,” Roy says. Says Chris: “He was a workhorse is what he was. Breeding is a numbers game, and Dr. Ogle was extremely good at playing it.”