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Crops scientists are looking to wild varieties to improve heat and drought resistance

In 1999, a plant breeder stumbled upon a wild white carrot that might just change the future of how crops are grown. Philipp Simon,Ph.D., a professor of horticulture at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, had just arrived in Izmir, Turkey, a city on the coast of the Aegean Sea. He was there on the hunt for diverse varieties of carrots, including purple ones favored by Turkish farmers. "They grow them for a local drink called şalgam," says Simon. But first, he had to drive to the farms where these violet vegetables grew, "a big circle from Izmir to the east and back," he says.

As Simon and another plant scientist made the journey by Jeep, he noticed wild carrots growing on the side of the road, "just like along the roadside in Wisconsin," he says. These carrots were white and acerbic. They had forked roots, an undesirable trait. Yet, they were surviving, without farmer intervention, in close to triple-digit weather—temperatures that would wreak havoc on the crisp orange carrots grown back home. Simon stopped every 30 miles or so to collect a few.

Today, the seeds from those carrots, and other wild crops like them, are helping horticulturists answer an urgent question: How do we breed fruits and vegetables that will adapt to the world's rapidly changing climate? Historically, the temperature in Kern County, the area in California's Central Valley where more than 80% of U.S. carrots are grown, rarely broke 100 degrees; in 2017, temperatures climbed over 100 in 57 days. Farmers were complaining to Simon about poor crops: bland, knobby, low-yielding. "Things were off," he says. 

In fields about 12 miles west of his Madison labs, Simon grows thousands of carrots—that Turkish one and many varieties—in screened-in enclosures about 6 feet tall and 3 feet across. Flies and bees buzz about, transferring pollen between the different cultivars of plants. Cross-pollination is a classic breeding technique; in the biz, they call it conventional breeding. "Basically, what we're doing is mixing up the genes from the wild carrot with those of the cultivated carrots, and hoping for, just by chance, the best combinations of those genes," Simon explains. The carrots from a first cross were pale and scrawny. "You'd think, 'What the heck is going on? This isn't a carrot,'" Simon says. He chooses the best of the bunch and crosses them with another batch of cultivated carrots, and does that again and again for every seed generation until he has carrots that are mostly pulling from the elite gene pool with a dash of wild. Looking at the ones he's working with now, you'd never know they were different from what's at the grocery store.

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