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HONORING PLANT BREEDER

Alan Kapuler

As a child growing up in Brooklyn, Kapuler was twinly obsessed with orchids and baseball, equally able to reel off lifetime home run statistics or botanical names of obscure flowers. At age 15 he won the Westinghouse National Science Talent Search for his experiments testing the effects of a mutagenic chemical on his beloved orchids. He entered Yale at 16, the youngest student in his class of 1,000 and graduated first in his class. His undergraduate honors thesis earned him the highest grade Yale had ever bestowed and was eventually published in the Journal of Molecular Biology. After earning his doctorate in molecular biology at prestigious Rockefeller University he worked with world expert on nucleic acids A.M. Michelson and apprenticed at the lab of future Nobel Prize winner Howard Temin.

Those were heady days of discoveries in his field. He looks back with awe at that time “when the structure of the genetic code was being discovered...it was the greatest self-revelation about our common unity with all organisms. They were the mystery of the ages, and we were uncovering those secrets.” Yet Kapuler, dismayed by colleagues who were producing lethal viruses for the U.S. government, suddenly left his fast-track career at the University of Connecticut and headed for the west coast with his dog, green van and $1,000. “I had to find my beloved wife and my kids and a life that had a heart.” He found Linda Sylvester in Oregon. Together they lived in poverty and he started saving seeds because he was too poor to buy them, eventually collecting more than 6,000 varieties and founding Peace Seeds which later merged with Seeds of Change. Currently he serves as Director of Research for Seeds of Change. His recent breeding work focuses on developing increased amino acid concentration as a way of increasing the nutritional value of food plants.

Kapuler once characterized his Peace Seeds catalog as a “Manual for conserving the plant gene-pool of planet Earth.” Using computer-generated bubble diagrams he calls “kingrams,” he laid out his catalogs in a biological format that shows how groupings of plants are connected to each other. Inspired by the work of Danish biologist Rolf Dahlgren, these maps have given Kapuler a sense of direction in his preservation work, pinpointing what’s really rare and needs growing.

To Kapuler, “Heritage seeds are essential to our heart chakra.” They are important not just because they produce a high quality crop or grow fast, but because they carry the message of the people. They are important for the same reason life is important. “We are involved in a process of passing on a heritage of liveness...”

The problem is not hybrids but “ownership of life.” Hybridizing, an “essential form of innovation,” does not go far enough. The next step is to make open-pollinated lines that stabilize the varieties. Rather than owning them, we must return them to the public domain, giving amateurs access to the gene pool and opportunities to develop new plants.

Much of Kapuler’s work has centered on de-hybridizing hybrids, taking that next step to create an equivalent open-pollinated variety. Among his successes are True Platinum, an open-pollinated version of Platinum Lady sweet corn, Summer Sun, an open-pollinated form of hybrid patty pan Sunburst and Swan Lake, a development from the hybrid melon Swan.

Through the Seeds of Change catalog, he has popularized a number of heirloom varieties including Elephant Head Amaranth and Hutterite Soup Bean (which he’d been collecting for 16 years and never tasted until a chance blizzard marooned him and put him in the mood for a hearty bean soup).

Like many who came of age in the turbulent sixties, Kapuler could justifiably echo the Grateful Dead’s anthem, “What a long, strange trip it’s been.” Kapuler seems to have weathered it as well as any of us.