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Segregation of Genes: The Plant Breeder's Method of Predicting the Future

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Super Power


Before You Start

Before you start the lesson, take a few minutes to work through this activity. If you do not understand the terms or the ideas used in this activity, you will learn them in this lesson.  Click on the picture below to begin the activity.



Super Power

If you could choose between two super powers, which would you choose?

  1. Predict the future
  2. Create food from air

While this may seem like a comic book question, you do not need to be a super hero to predict future events and guide the development of creatures that make food from thin air.  You just need to be a plant breeder. 

Dr. Stephen Baenziger is in the business of predicting the future; he is the small grains breeder for the University of Nebraska. Farmers throughout the state and the region rely on the accuracy of the predictions he and his plant breeding team make each year. 

Before watching this video clip, ask yourself these questions:

  • What is the character (characteristic) the wheat breeder is examining in the plants?
  • What are the different phenotypes the wheat breeder observes for this character?
  • What was the environmental treatment the wheat breeder had to apply to the plant families before observing phenotype differences?
  • The wheat breeder mentions some predictions or hyopotheses that use genetics to explain observed phenotypes.  What are some of the hypotheses?
Figure 2.  Dr. Baenziger in his wheat fields. Click on Dr. Baenziger's picture to see an introduction.

The overall goal for his team is to create and then identify a new ‘line’ of wheat that will produce plants with a better combination of traits than those found in the wheat lines the farmer is currently growing.  It seems somewhat miraculous that the carbon in a slice of bread we use to sustain or grow our bodies was carbon in the air just months earlier. The amazing biology that makes the grain from the wheat plant a wonderful food is a story that combines forces of nature, the farmer who battles those forces, as well as the planning and action of the wheat breeder.

A line or variety of wheat selected by the modern plant breeder has been subjected to evaluation for many characteristics over several years and multiple environments.  In our story, we will simplify this selection by Dr. Baenziger’s wheat breeding team to just one character.  The team has promised  the farmer they can provide a new type of wheat that has the genetic ability to resist a powerful weed killer.  The farmer sprays the weed killer and the weeds die, but the wheat plants resist the weed killer and keep growing.  No longer will the wheat battle weeds for the limited water, minerals, and light.  This is an important promise that Dr. Baenziger needs to keep.  His knowledge of genetics (not a super human ability) will help him keep his promise.

Figure 3.  Wheat plants from this harvested field are no longer competing with the weeds that were living there at the same time.



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