PiPC2: Tomacco.

Tomacco.

‘The Simpsons’ is one of my favorite shows. And it brings me to the second in my series on plants in popular culture. See my first post in the series here (spoiler alert).

In the episode from Season 11 ‘E-I-E-I-(annoyed grunt)’, Homer creates a plant that’s a hybrid between tobacco and tomato.

In addition to the plant-centered theme, this episode is also great because it’s the one where Homer sees a movie with Zorro in it and attempts to emulate Zorro by challenging people around town to duels after slapping them with a white glove. After the first incident at the movie theater where Homer defends Marge’s honor, he takes a ketchup bottle and squeezes out a red ‘H’ on Marge’s dress as Zorro would make a ‘Z’ with is sword.

After a lot of glove slapping, Homer is finally taken up on his offer to duel by a Southern Colonel who’s in town. The Colonel chooses ‘pistols at dawn’ as the dueling method. Homer goes home despondent and talks to his family about it. Through some very funny dialog, The Simpsons escape the Colonel who is camped out on their front lawn and flee town, apparently never to return.

Now before getting to Tomacco, there are some interesting things set up early on in this episode. There’s ketchup and southern culture (also associated with tobacco) in the form of dueling and the Colonel (I know dueling is not specific to The South)- a foreshadowing of what’s to come. There’s also a set up of what is basically horribly processed food at the beginning of the episode- Buzz cola (advertised by WWII soldiers on D-Day…), milk duds soaked in movie theater butter (someone must have tried this in real life…), and ketchup.

So The Simpsons take up residence on Grandpa Simpson’s old farm to lay low. Despite the rustic home, Homer decides he’s going to become a farmer and the family sort of enthusiastically follows despite raccoons- er, cats with rabies- on top of it all.

Seeds to grow things are essential to a farmer and so Homer goes to the local farm shop to get some farm equipment and seeds- and Gummi bears where the initial implication is that he’s going to plant them in the soil to see what they grow into. The fact that Homer initially gets a handful of Gummi Bears to potentially plant is also a statement about how most of us are pretty divorced from where our food actually comes from. This is also another example of a processed food in the episode.

The locals tell him he won’t grow anything at ‘The ol’ Simpson place’, but Homer wants to prove them wrong despite apparent high soil pH.

Back on the farm and a month after planting…nothing is growing. By comparison, the neighboring farm has corn literally grown up to elephant eye height. Desperate, Homer calls his friend Lenny at the nuclear power plant to ship him some plutonium (yes, that’s radioactive) to use as a soil supplement, to grow large plants- overnight (I love the way cartoons show radioactivity with things glowing visibly- in reality, you don’t see the deadly kind of radiation).

Giant plants don’t grow (not even invisible ones- not a reasonable hypothesis, Homer, but keep trying) but Lisa discovers a tiny seedling buried underneath the soil. And the family discovers a whole bunch of seedlings growing underneath a layer of soil. What are they? Did the Gummi bears magically become seeds and sprout? One thing is for sure, you’d likely get one, maybe two depending on your population size of seeds started with that would turn out to have a similar set of mutations and thus create the same kind of plant.

When the plantlets bear fruit some time later- they look exactly like tomatoes- this happens:

Bart: Bleh!  Tastes like cigarette butts.

Marge:[takes the half-eaten “tomato”] That’s odd.  The outside looks like a tomato, but the inside is brown.

Lisa: Maybe the tomato seeds crossbred with the tobacco seeds.

Homer: Oh, great, I’ve got a field full of mutants.

Bart: Gimmie.  I want more.  [grabs back the tomato and eats it]

Lisa: I thought you said it tasted terrible.

Bart: It does.  [grinds out the remains of the first tomato] But it’s smooth and mild.  [grabs another] And refreshingly addictive.

Homer: Addictive, eh?

Homer calls this new ‘mutant’ Tomacco and sells it on the side of the road to passers by (as Ralph Wiggum takes a bite- “It tastes like Grandma”). Marge is trying to sell home-made mincemeat pies (where she got the ingredients for it is not explained), but doesn’t have any takers because the addictive tomacco is so, well, addictive. This series of scenes suggests we as a society are addicted to our modern food products (read: sugar) that are the result of science and reject the home made, the local, the healthier. While science is partly responsible for this, there are also societal reasons for it as well. Although it is a little ironic that Homer is essentially a small scale farmer in this episode.

Tomacco is so successful that Laramie, the cigarette company, comes and makes an offer for it of $150 million which The Simpsons decline demanding 100 times that amount which gets them kicked out of the Laramie limo. Back on the farm, there are other problems; namely neighboring farm animals have gotten into the field and nearly eaten all of the tomacco crop! And they’re addicted to it too. In the end, the last tomacco plant is destroyed, and the Simpsons return to 742 Evergreen Terrace and resolve their issues with the dueller- with a mince meat pie (Of course, they do have a duel first).

What’s the reality of the science behind this episode (hint: not much, but it’s still fun)?

Based on This analysis of the family that tomatoes and tobacco are in (commonly called the nightshade family), they are distantly related; sharing a relative some 25 million ago. Given that the definition of a species is typically ‘a population that can interbreed’, tobacco (Nicotiana tobacum) and tomato (Solanum lycopersicum) likely can’t pollinate one another, despite still having similarly structured genomes (diploid chromosome number = 24 in each). However, one person did graft a tomato shoot onto a tobacco root stock and created a tomato like fruit that had tobacco in it- or nicotine, suggesting that nicotine is being produced and transported from the tobacco root into the tomato shoot system.

As for Lisa’s assertion that tomato and tobacco seeds must have gotten mixed together and the plutonium radiation must have brought them together- it does not work that way. Radiation can definitely mutate DNA. The Sci-fi writer, Neal Stephenson, told a story (sorry, I don’t remember where) about when he was a kid where his Boy Scout troop grew maize seeds exposed to the core of a nuclear power plant to see who could grow the weirdest plant. Radiation that your body is exposed to can cause single nucleotides to change (may or may not be consequential) to inducing a so called ‘double-stranded break’ which is what it sounds like; a chromosome (a double helix of DNA millions to billions of nucleotides long) breaks in two (or more) segments and the cell’s repair machinery can’t always fix that kind of damage correctly (which end goes together with which end?). Higher radiation usually means more damage done (radiation has effects on cells besides on DNA too).

As for the assertion that the tomacco plants are ‘mutants’, well, yes they are. But in science, a mutant is defined in less pejorative terms. We all have different DNA in our bodies and so we could all be considered mutants in some way. Individual genes have different versions called alleles that float around in a population (that’s how natural selection works- it needs variety to select and at the base of physical variation is gene variability). Geneticists talk about ‘The wild-type’ that can be defined as the most common allele of a gene in a population and anything different is considered ‘mutant’. Alternatively, it’s not necessary to designate a ‘normal’ and a ‘mutant’ and just give the frequencies of an allele within a population. Basic researchers also use a reference called a wild type too that we compare intentionally made mutants (often meaning complete loss-of-function of the gene of interest) and expose both to a condition to see if the mutant responds differently from the wild-type. This is how we often figure out what a gene’s particular function is within an organism (yes, it’s more complicated than this, but it’s the basic idea).

After treating with plutonium, there’s a whole field of tomacco plants all of a sudden. In reality, as noted above, radiation wouldn’t affect each seed the same way so it’s unlikely to produce a combination more than once or twice that will result in the tomacco plant. Now it is possible that tomacco is vegetatively apomictic- sending out roots (called ‘runners’) that pop up elsewhere and become new shoot systems (though clones of the original). Potatoes can do this, as can many grasses and aspen trees. Or Homer made cuttings of one plant that regenerated into whole tomacco plants. Some plants can be propagated that way as well.

It really is true that alkaline soils (or basic soil, pH>7) make it hard to grow most plants. It’s what would be called ‘marginal’ farmland until it can be rectified (which may involve growing other plants to remediate the soil).

Although The Simpsons is one of the smartest shows on television (employing many former scientists, mathematicians, etc.) they are there to tell good stories and be funny. Not necessarily get science right. The larger issues this episode brings up, that foods heavily modified by humans may be inherently bad for us. However, the story is more complicated than that. Humans have been selecting traits and modifying plants ever since we started agriculture. We can now extract sugar and put it into forms like Gummi bears or butter soaked milk duds that our ancestors couldn’t have dreamed of, and that may be highly addicting- the sugar craving that many of us struggle with. However, genetic modification (either traditional or modern) is not necessarily all bad as increasing production of agriculture will be necessary to feed the world.

It is largely not how we modify the plants themselves, but how we process them after harvest that’s the issue. Laramie could be a stand in for Monsanto- wanting a new plant technology to sell to farmers, but Monsanto isn’t all evil- far from it. They want to make plants that require less input of resources and increase yield- to soften the footprint that agriculture has (and they are still that crop- whatever it is- Monsanto is not in the business of producing combination species like tomacco as far as I know- even a desirable one). Now any institution as big as a Monsanto will have things that are problematic which can happen when making money is as important as fulfilling a scientific mission. I don’t think it’s worth Monsanto’s time to try to create GM crops that are smaller in scale than soy beans, maize, cotton and rice, though I can’t divine what Monsanto’s next projects are…they are rather secretive about what they work on.

2% of the US population are farmers. That leaves 98% of us that are mostly clueless about how or food is grown, where exactly it comes from (solanacious species of plants are distributed all over the world with the highest diversity in South America which is where potatoes, tomatoes, peppers, and tobacco originate). Do we plant Gummi bears? I hope most people know that we don’t. But a larger point of this episode is that when we’re cut off from where our food comes from, we’re also ignorant of agricultural and environmental issues in growing it, the footprint it has, and whether a few large companies really do run the show in producing things that aren’t the healthiest of products.

Connecting to what nature produces, where food comes from, how it’s farmed, what problems farmers face, what is seasonal (even if you still buy it year round), what environmental impact that crop has, and avoiding overly processed foods all has a lot of potential upside for individuals’ health and well being. Studies show that connecting with nature is good for the human mind.

This turned into a long post! Thanks for reading if you made it this far. Time for some Milk Duds soaked in butter…

Ever on and on.

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Author: Ian Street

Ian is a plant scientist and science writer relating stories of plant science and scientists on his blog, The Quiet Branches as well as other outlets. You can find him on Twitter @IHStreet.

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