Perspectives Online

College Profile. The work of Dr. Major Goodman, world-renowned geneticist and maize scientist, is celebrated at a symposium in his honor. By Dee Shore.

A professor of crop science, statistics, genetics and botany, Major Goodman is widely considered to be the world authority on maize germplasm resources and maintaining the genetic diversity of the corn crop.
Photo by Daniel Kim

Let's hear it for the root canal.

To hear Major Goodman tell it, he might never have become a scientist if he hadn't had that dreaded dental procedure back when he was in high school.

And if he hadn't become a scientist, his colleagues will tell you, we wouldn't know nearly as much as we do about how evolutionary and systematic biology, quantitative genetics and multivariate statistics can be used to breed better crops.

Moreover, they'll say, the corn crop - upon which so many U.S. farmers and world consumers depend - would likely be much more susceptible to catastrophic failure.

Major Goodman
Photo by Daniel Kim
Dr. Goodman is one of the world's leading corn researchers, and his fellow maize breeders and geneticists from around the world gathered at N.C. State University earlier this year to celebrate his scientific contributions.

In Goodman's honor, they put together a symposium focused on genetic diversity in maize and its closest wild relative, teosinte. The speakers included scientists from the University of Wisconsin, the Universidad de Guadalajara, Cornell University and the Pioneer Hi-Bred seed company (read on for more about Pioneer - and about that root canal).

Also on the program were Goodman's across-the-hall colleague at N.C. State, Dr. Jim Holland, and Dr. Peter A. Peterson, an Iowa State University professor who introduced a young Goodman to the field of genetics.

Together, they presented Goodman with a commemorative issue of the journal Maydica that included a 10-page "laudation" summarizing his life and his accomplishments.

A professor of crop science, statistics, genetics and botany (yes, four disciplines) at N.C. State, Goodman was praised for many things - but above all for his crusading efforts to promote genetic diversity in a crop that it's been rapidly and notoriously bred out of.

Recalling the symposium, Goodman shakes his head.

"Plain embarrassing," he says. "To bring as many people as they did was shocking."

If the event caused him to blush, it was surely not the first time. Over his 40-year career, he's been in the spotlight on numerous occasions:

In 1986, for example, he was elected to the National Academy of Sciences.

Then in 1987, he received the O. Max Gardner Award - an honor bestowed by the University of North Carolina Board of Governors to faculty members judged to "have made the greatest contribution to the welfare of the human race."

And last fall, he was presented a national crop science research award at a joint meeting of American agronomy, crop science and soil science societies.

According to the article in Maydica that Holland wrote with five other scientists, Goodman "is considered by many maize scientists to be the world authority on maize germplasm resources and their utilization in breeding."

Goodman's hallmark is his ability to tap multiple disciplines through traditional and modern techniques - all in the pursuit of exploring and retaining the genetic diversity of one of the world's leading crops. And he's just as comfortable analyzing the genes, enzymes and molecules that make up corn as he is harvesting corn in field trials he's conducted in southern Florida for nearly 40 years and as he is pushing government agencies, seed companies and scientists to take steps to protect the genetic diversity of maize.

Over the years, Goodman has helped plan the acquisition of some 20,000 maize accessions into the U.S. germplasm system, and he's also encouraged similar conservation efforts throughout Latin America. At the same time, through work in a number of foreign countries, he has independently identified and rescued several hundred collections of indigenous maize.

While collecting different types of maize is the first step toward preserving genetic diversity, Goodman is convinced that it's not enough. To maintain genetic diversity, he says, the germplasm must be put to use in active breeding programs.

Not one to preach what he won't practice, he switched career gears in 1983. He'd been working as a researcher in the Statistics Department on basic research into the genetic characteristics of different races of maize. But when the Crop Science Department head asked Goodman if he would take over the university's corn breeding program, how could he refuse?

Since becoming a plant breeder, he's developed more than 90 public lines mixing tropical and temperate parents. Because these lines have been used by others to develop commercial hybrids, the genetic stock he created has shown up in hybrids used in Asia, Central and South America and the United States.

That worldwide influence - it started by accident, Goodman says, with the root canal.

Goodman grew up in Johnston, Iowa, "home," as he puts it, "to 500 people and one employer": Pioneer Hi-Bred, the multinational seed company largely responsible for revolutionizing corn production in the United States in the 20th century.

Henry Wallace founded the company in 1926 with the idea that he could create better corn crops by controlling pollination and creating vigorous hybrids. And then he would sell the seeds of those hybrids to farmers who wanted to increase their yields.

Goodman's brother worked at Pioneer as a foreman, and he hired Major to work during summers when he was in high school in the 1950s. His job involved walking cornfields that stretched as far as his eyes could see, hoeing and taking the tassels off the plants.

On the day the others in his crew learned how to de-rogue the fields - to remove weaker plants before they had a chance to pollinate hardier ones nearby - Goodman was off at the dentist's getting a root canal.

The next day, he found himself walking the seemingly endless rows with a spade "not having a clue," he recalls, of what he was supposed to do.

Fieldwork, he decided, wasn't for him.

Near the end of that long, hot summer, he was sent to talk to the folks in Pioneer's research labs. "They said, 'Go talk to Donald Duvick, Raymond Baker or William Brown,'" Goodman says. He didn't know then that they were three of the world's leading corn breeders.

Goodman thought Duvick was a funny name, so he decided he'd try Brown. Brown, who ultimately became Pioneer's president and CEO, not only gave him a job in the lab, he was one of several people who would push Goodman toward college.

Goodman went to Iowa State University, but in his senior year he still needed biology credits to graduate. He had avoided biology because the courses tended to require more class time than other subjects.

"There was a course in statistics with a genetics number on it, so I thought I would try that. It turned out that course was impossible. No undergraduate had ever signed up," he says. "They literally gave me an A. I didn't know what the course about."

He had no career plan at that point, but his roommate was planning to go to graduate school in chemistry - and he encouraged Goodman to do the same.

But Goodman didn't want to be a chemist because he didn't like the idea of being cooped up in a lab all the time. So he took a few more biology courses and decided he'd give genetics a try. Soon enough, he was off to North Carolina.

Meanwhile, back home in Iowa, Pioneer founder Henry Wallace had been growing alarmed about the very monoculture he'd helped create in the corn industry. Referring to a fabulously popular hybrid that an Illinois farmer named Robert Reid had created in the late 1800s, Wallace wrote, "When Reid's Yellow Dent swept the Corn Belt from 1890 to 1920, it destroyed thousands of [now forgotten corns]. . When hybrid corn swept the Corn Belt from 1930 to 1950, it destroyed most of what remained."

What Wallace and others in the corn industry had begun to realize was that, with just a handful of inbred lines being used to produce most of the corn grown in the United States, the U.S. corn industry's genetic base had grown dangerously narrow.

A new disease or insect or a new version of an old pest could devastate the crop, and breeders would not have the genetic resources they needed to breed new hybrids capable of resisting the threat.

As he studied under N.C. State professor Bob Moll, Goodman latched on what he thought might be the answer: tropical germplasm. In tropical climates, with no frost to offer a respite from pests, plants are exposed to insect and disease pressure year-round. Only particularly resistant plants are likely to survive.

Indeed, in comparing Corn Belt hybrids with a West Indian composite, Goodman found that while the average Corn Belt composite had the higher average yield, under certain conditions the West Indian maize outperformed it.

The theme he set out in his master's thesis - that is, the value of enhancing the genetic base of the U.S. maize crop with tropical maize germplasm - became a continuous thread that carried into Ph.D. studies in genetics at N.C. State, his postdoctoral work classifying races of maize in Brazil and, starting in 1967, his efforts as a faculty member at N.C. State.

Although he intends to work until he's 70, February's symposium was a fitting capstone on a career that - as accidental as it may have been - continues to bear seeds.