Courtesy Carnegie Institution for Science Administrative Archives
We consumed more than a billion bananas in 2017, according to National Geographic. Without seeds, the banana is the perfect fruit to incorporate into breakfast, desserts, and snacks. But imagine peeling a banana and biting into its soft flesh only to feel hard spherical seeds amongst the bits of sweet banana. Thanks to botanist Albert Blakeslee’s initial experiments on plant polyploidy almost a century ago, seedless fruits have become commonplace and the pinnacle of fruit consumption. While Gregor Mendel is considered the father of genetics, Albert Blakeslee could be considered a father of plant genetics.
Albert Blakeslee was born on November 9, 1874, in Genesco, New York. Blakeslee then attended Wesleyan University for his undergraduate where he graduated in 1896. Wanting to pursue a career in teaching, Blakeslee attended Harvard University for his Master's degree.
In 1915, Carnegie Institution for Science recognized Blakeslee’s talent for botany and encouraged him to continue his research in plant genetics at the Department of Genetics at Cold Spring Harbor, NY. During his 26 years at Carnegie, Blakeslee focused much of his research on trisomy in the Jimson weed (Datura stramonium) with a fellow researcher named John Belling. They analyzed the effects that individual chromosomes had on Datura. They discovered that colchicine, a plant alkaloid compound that was used to treat gout, induces chromosome numbers to multiply in plants under specific conditions. Their findings made a significant impact in the field of genetics because it proved that certain chemicals have the ability to manipulate genes and possibly induce mutations. Through this finding, Blakeslee and Belling contributed a great amount of information on genetics and plant polyploidy. Although their experiment only lasted four years, these studies on polyploidy eventually led to the production of artificial polyploid plants around the mid 1950s and contributed greatly to the understanding of external mutagens.
His interest in various other plants such as Verbena led him to find that people vary in their abilities to taste phenyl-thio-carbamide (PTC), which is the taste of bitterness. By smelling differently colored Verbena flowers, Blakeslee observed that only the pink flowers were fragrant to him while only the red flowers were fragrant to his assistant. Intrigued, Blakeslee then moved on to observe the drastic difference in people’s ability to taste certain chemicals. One of the most popular chemicals was PTC. While some reported tasting an unpleasant bitterness, others tasted nothing at all. At science conventions, people would often pass by Albert Blakeslee’s booth and test their abilities to taste PTC. Through these observations, Blakeslee concluded that the ability to taste certain chemicals is inherited and that some people remain “blind” to certain compounds. Blakeslee’s data was eventually compiled onto the article: “Genetics of Sensory Thresholds: Taste for Phenyl Thio Carbamide” published in 1932. Blakeslee’s research gave way to an increased understanding of heritable phenotypes. While his experiments weren’t the first to test sensory variation in humans, Blakeslee was indeed a pioneer in unraveling the human sensory perception using plants as a method of discovery.
Although Blakeslee passed away in 1954, the legacy of his research prevails in everyday life. Through his colchicine discovery and a chain of later experiments completed by other researchers, artificial plant polyploidy is now a key tool in plant breeding amongst farmers and contributes to the production of a variety of crops. His research on polyploidy also increased awareness when handling chemical carcinogens and mutagens. The awareness also stretches into polyploidy in humans, a lethal medical complication. Lastly, his research on heritable human senses provided a basis for the growth of neuroscience and the understanding of human olfactory senses.
--by Suhyun (Suzie) Lee (2019), Carnegie Summer Intern in the Rhee lab