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Jack Brown's seed collection and science skills win interest from Prince Charles to Argentina and Spain

by Bill Loftus

Plant breeder Jack Brown has become a focus in the worldwide interest in biofuels and plants that can produce them. Brown’s research during his 15 years at the University of Idaho College of Agricultural and Life Sciences has focused on canola, rapeseed, and mustard—all members of the Brassica family.


Plant breeder Jack Brown paints pollen
on a canola bloom to introduce new
characteristics in the seed.

In November 2006, Brown signed a 5-year research deal with a fledgling Gibraltar-based company, Eco-Energy Ltd. The company, which hopes to become a key player in the global biodiesel market, wants Brown to develop oilseed crops tailored for local conditions that can be used as feedstocks for biofuel production. (Feedstock is a raw material used in an industrial process.)

This year, Brown has established research plots to test his varieties in Argentina, Great Britain, Morocco, Paraguay, Romania, Spain, and elsewhere.

In March 2007, he visited the Duchy of Cornwall, Prince Charles’ estate, to explore mustard production there for fuel and as a soil amendment to fight pests. He finished out the month in Wuhan, China, at the 12th International Rapeseed Conference.

Brown’s focus and methods

Brown, born near Roslin, Scotland, gained prominence as a Brassica breeder by using advanced scientific methods and by gathering one of the largest collections of canola, rapeseed, and mustard germplasm. His focus is canola,  the edible form of rapeseed.

Developed originally by Canadian scientists, it produces seeds with some of the highest oil content among agricultural crops. Rapeseed, canola’s close cousin, produces industrial oils of exceptional quality but contains high amounts of erucic acid that makes it inedible.

Mustard, the pungent spice, produces oil-bearing seeds

It is his collection that attracted the attention of Ian Rosenblatt, president of Gibraltar-based Eco-Energy Ltd.

“We came here because we saw what work the university had been doing,” Rosenblatt said during his November visit to Moscow. “They’ve been well immersed in biodiesel and biofuels research for some considerable time, and here, with the university, the research they’ve done headed by Jack Brown is the best team you could possibly have to develop product for the future.”

Brown’s scientific methods include:

High-tech hybridizing Mixing species that are otherwise incompatible or produce sterile offspring. The resulting hybrids allow Brown to shuffle the species’ genetic decks to breed new varieties.

Single-seed selection A breeding technique somewhere between universal and amazing allows Brown to analyze the oil composition and other characteristics of one seed before planting it.

If that one seed has what he’s looking for, he can grow it in the greenhouse, then multiply its offspring until their seeds can fill a field and fuel an industry.

Contact Jack Brown at jbrown@uidaho.edu, or visit his website at http://www.ag.uidaho.edu/brassica/.



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