For many centuries it was known but not understood, that the yellow dust (pollen), when transferred by insects or carried artificially by man, from the dehisced anthers of one flower to the stigmas of another flower, resulted in the formation of fruit. As time progressed from the late 18th century, through the 19th and 20th centuries, an understanding of the nature of this process of transfer, called pollination, took place. The majority of pollen-producing plants require the pollen to be transferred, by whatever agent, from one flower to a different flower of the same or very closely related species.
Few flowering plants use their own pollen (self pollination), and usually only resort to this if cross-pollination has not occurred. Perhaps the best-known examples of cross pollination between closely related species dates from the early, Neolithic in the Middle East, the so-called 'fertile crescent', where varieties of wild wheat were gradually improved in yield by cross pollination. This hybridization process continued and expanded to include a wide range and variety of crop plants in agriculture. The discovery of Gregor Mendel's (1860) experimental studies on cross pollination in peas laid the foundation of the science of genetics in the early 20th century, and coupled with the rapidly developing understanding of cell structure and function - cytology - the scientific discipline of cytogenetics, have both made an important impact on the process of plant breeding.
Whilst early techniques used in plant hybridization and breeding were applied to crop/food plants, the development of horticulture and forestry were stimulated and have made a considerable impact on the economic life of man.
Recent developments in techniques of gene manipulation and the recognition of the role of selected genes which could be considered to be to the advantage of a plant lacking them, have led to the implantation of such genes, e.g. those which could resist disease or pest attack, in crop plants. Such techniques are known as Gene Modification (GM). The ability to alter the genetic makeup of plants by exposure to radiation has long been known and the subject of experimentation. However, most radiation-induced changes - man-made mutation - are deleterious. Genetic modification is a more precise and predictable practice. The aim of GM modification is said to benefit and enhance crop production. It is, however, a very controversial issue, not the least as the long-term impact on the environment and ecosystem is unknown.
The role of plant breeding in horticulture has a long history. The twin approaches of hybridization and plant propagation by genetic means have over the years produced a profusion of plant varieties selected for form, colour and scent. Hybridization by means of cross-pollination produces the range of floral types, especially seen today. The long sought after 'black tulip', by means of cross pollination and selection, has so far eluded attempts of over 400 years of effort - to produce the so - called Queen of the Night, which is sold as the 'black' tulip, is dark purple as is the very recently bred Black Hyacinth. Roses have over the past century and a half have had a most successful outcome from cross pollination (together with vegetative grafting of stock (original plant) and scion (grafted floral part) to produce the tremendous range of varieties obtained. Grafting and cross-pollination have long been employed in developing fruits.
Western Europe, Australia, New Zealand, South Africa and the U.S.A. have all developed many varieties of fruits. Potatoes have received a lot of specialized attention, especially in southern Scotland, where climate, soil and elevation have all played a major part in the breeding of new varieties, for example, the Pentland range of potato developed at Roslin near Edinburgh.
Palynology has played an important role in the soft fruit industry: raspberries strawberries, gooseberries, blueberries, red and black currants, grapes, brambles (blackberries) to name only a few from the temperate zones, in addition to the enormous range of fruits (and vegetables) produced by plant breeders in the tropical and subtropical parts of the world such as grape fruit, bananas, mangoes, etc.
Many, but not all, of the above breeding programmes have involved artificial pollination under strictly controlled conditions.
A visit to any local market around the world will reveal the bewildering display of fruits, flowers and vegetables, including cereals and pulses. Rice, a staple diet of millions of people, especially among Asians, has been the subject of intensive plant breeding. Pollination has played a major role here as rice is herbaceous and precludes vegetative reproduction. Other cereal grasses such as maize (corn), millet, wheat, oats, barley, rye together with the great variety of peas and beans derived from leguminous plants, have all been subject to breeding programmes based on pollination techniques.
Pollination techniques used in plant breeding programmes are an aspect of applied palynology, which have proved immensely successful in supplying, most importantly, food of enhanced quality and nourishment for mankind.
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