PiPC9: Leonard Nimoy.

Leonard Nimoy passed away yesterday. And that hit me hard. I grew up really relating to Spock, his iconic character. Logic could solve problems. Science could solve problems and allow us to explore the universe and everything within it. It was a big influence on me growing up. He seems to be an introvert too, all the more reason to relate to him.

His final plant-biology including Tweet was:

A life is like a garden. Perfect moments can be had, but not preserved, except in memory. LLAP

— Leonard Nimoy (@TheRealNimoy) February 23, 2015

Something I hadn’t thought about with plants is just how much they do reflect passage of time, moments that are fleeting, and just how the world moves on even after a bloom senesces. There are perfect moments, or meditative ones when we pause and really notice our surroundings, the plants, smells, sights, sounds, the people we’re with.

I’m writing this with a cat on my lap. I am aware of soreness in my body that’s been bothering me lately. I’ve spent my night writing for my other blog. I feel like I have let Spock down. I haven’t been rigorously applying logic to all my decisions in life. I have tried to pursue science as best I can. I’ve failed the Starfleet motto to. I haven’t boldly gone as yet. to me that implies taking decisions and seeing where they lead. I am getting better at this, but still.

Leonard Nimoy’s passing is making me reflect. How can I build more perfect moments into my life? Even if they’re fleeting, they were there. Nimoy always struck me as a thoughtful and contemplative person, even though I don’t know much about his personal life. I will miss him.




PiPC8: Sonmanto and Momsanto

Plants in popular culture is an occasional series where I delve into the plants that are an integral part of a piece of popular culture (rest of the series is here). In this edition, I take on a few portrayals of Monsanto from ‘Continuum’ and ‘Futurama’. I’ve addressed this a bit before in PiPC4: Leverage

The world of Continuum is one where technology rules. In the year 2077, cities (Vancouver in this case, I think…where ALL the things happen that matter to recent world history apparently). However, that technology is only available to those who are well off. In fact, it’s a rather dystopian world with a cabal of corporations rule the world after bailing out the world’s indebted governments and they track everything, snuff out dissent, and otherwise act in rather Orwellian terms. A group of terrorists (in their terms Freedom Fighters) called Liber8 end up going back in time to 2012 along with a corporate police officer (CPC officer) named Keira. Liber8 tries to derail the future by winning the past. Keira tries to stop them all while trying to adjust to life in 2012.

One of the ‘evil’ companies is ‘Sonmanto’, a stand in for Monsanto and an early target of Liber8. Amongst other things they produce toxic chemicals (billed as an ‘herbicide’ in this case). In this world, no company can do a good deed and they are quite opaque (also above the law, with no accountability to anyone, and are “people” that never seem to die). While it is nuanced with some of the characters, the businesses are decidedly evil.

It plays into income inequality fears (a few haves, many, many more left to deal with what the wealthy build and no amount of effort lets you move up if you happen to be low born). It’s certainly a fear with some basis in current reality and the business of Monsanto with it’s combination of being a high tech company and one that deals with genetic modification (both by traditional, but marker assisted, breeding and via inserting genes into the genome) easily play into modern fears of life science technology and what it could unleash on the world. Will Sonmanto, with its partners, take over the world? Will profit win over people— is it more important to make a few people rich than to produce a good product and treat employees as human beings  (e.g. is economy here to serve a few or everyone)? Can income inequality be solved (not everyone totally equal, just more equal; a narrowing of the range of incomes)? Will corporations truly run our lives more than they do now. We all depend on private sector businesses, just as we all depend on the Government and even nature itself can be thought of as a massive institution. These are the questions Continuum plays with a lot.

We live in an era where taking from the rich and giving to the poor is more noble than it has been in a long time. Income inequality is the greatest it has been in history and it’s easy to look at a company—Monsanto is midsize in corporate terms— and say they are the Sheriff of Nottingham. A recent story on the NPR blog, The Salt, had a profile of Vance Crowe, part of who’s job it is to make Monsanto a bit more transparent. Their customers are farmers (many who apparently like Monsanto seeds and buy them each year). Engagement with the broader public seems relatively new. Although it’s not all about transparency; Monsanto could open it’s books and intellectual property and it likely wouldn’t derail fears of GM technology. that’s not me arguing against transparency. Usually openness is a good thing, but do understand companies and governments have to keep some things secret though from where I sit, it does seem like both institutions keep too many things close to the vest.

Currently, all GMOs on the market have been deemed safe by regulators, independent scientists, as well as the internal testing of the companies themselves (they do have an incentive to serve a market and most people like buying quality products as affordably as possible). There are more than just Monsanto/coporate produced GMOs too (Papayas from Hawaii, for instance) and scientists use GMOs all the time in labs to study how plants (and other organisms) work. these both, as far as I know do not generate the controversies that Monsanto inspires. There’s a weariness about the debate over GMOs that Tamar Haspel wrote about recently. And I largely agree with her points (though there may be ways to achieve labeling that are reasonable besides putting it on the food itself). And if you haven’t seen Nathanael Johnson’s ‘panic free GMOs‘ series for Grist, it’s worth a look too. GM is a technology. and how it’s used is what really matters and each case needs to be evaluated independently.

In Season 10, episode 9 of Futurama , entitled ‘Leela and the Genestalk’, Leela— a mutant— starts to be affected by a condition called ‘squidification’, slowly turning her bodies into tentacles. The World of Futurama is one where anything imaginable is possible. Humans have left Earth, aliens have migrated here, the universe is just a large city. And it’s seen through the eyes of Fry, who was cryogenically Frozen in the year 2000 to be unthawed in the year 3000 in New New York.

As you may have guessed from the title of the episode the narrative is that of Jack and the Bean Stalk. The twist here is that the beans aren’t magic. They’re GMOs. They’re gigantic. And Leela decides to climb one that germinates rather than go live with her mutant parents in the sewer with her squidification. Leela climbs high into the sky about NNY until the bean stalk suddenly collapses. Desperate she reaches one of her hyper extendable squid arms up to a cloud and instead of passing through, it grabs onto something solid. Leela pulls herself up only to be on a flying platform with a castle on it and a unicorn running around the courtyard. This is Momsanto, Momcorp’s genetic engineering division. Momcorp is the evil large corporation of the Futurama world. It’s run by Mom and her 3 idiot sons.

Mom explains that Momsanto is flying above the Earth to get past regulations so she can perform any kind of genetic experiments she likes away from prying eyes (for the record, Mom does plenty of terrible things down on the Earth too). In the episode, Mom produced the giant beans by splicing in elephant genes into standard beans1 to make them gigantic. The determination of size of biological organisms is complex and fascinating and really not quite as easy as just splicing in genes from an elephant into a plant to make ti big; plants can get big absent elephant DNA, but I admit it makes a good visual. Momsanto on the inside looks like Frankenstein’s lab, and that’s probably not an accident. the experiments being done likely would never make it past an IRB.

Fry and Bender the awesome sarcastic robot go to rescue Leela when they realize she’s alive up in the sky and they find Leela even more squidified, all tentacles. They run through the castle and discover a giant man hooked up to a machine, presumably being genetically engineered! Leela lets him loose and they chase him. They escape to the bridge of the ship where Mom and her kids are piloting the flying lab. Leela crashes it into NNY because she’s anti-GMO And horrified about the experiments going on…the end.

Except not quite. Mom pays Leela a visit to thank her for her squidified DNA, it solved the bean stalk falling down problem. Taking DNA without consent is a big no-no, I believe. And I think perhaps in this case, Leela may deserve a co-inventor credit. The beans can hold themselves up with suckers2. And she introduces the giant that chased them before, now normal sized…he was being helped by Mom for his gigantism condition. Leela is still a bit horrified, that growing a giant bean and curing a person of a condition might be well and good, but the method is terrifying to her. Mom informs her she can fix Leela’s squidification too…which she consents to. And so there’s the villainous and the upside of GM technology in one story.

The implication is that people would drop their objection if they really saw how the technology could benefit them. I have no doubt that that would convince some people, but probably not many. How much data would it take to convince a GM skeptic that a particular GM is safe/non-harmful? Probably no amount is sufficient since it’s often an emotional argument they make, something that is a really key part of their identity as Brendan Nyhan has shown really makes correcting people’s misconceptions about things hard to correct. Data will convince some people, certainly, but not all. Even noted science communicator and otherwise intelligent person Bill Nye seems to have a hard time accepting GM technology, someone who idealizes evidence, but apparently not in this case.

While it’s possible that a future GM modification could be problematic and the company that releases it should be held accountable for whatever damage it causes, it seems unlikely (or like most problems that come up with technology, we’ll find a way to address it when it arises). Most scientists want to solve problems the world has. Monsanto is a company dedicated to helping feed the world’s growing population on less land with lower input of resources (fertilizer, water). At least that’s their public mission. GM can help with that. Farmers do choose what seed to buy and in the case of Maize, soy and cotton, GM varieties are now favored I presume because the offer better yields/quality output product. I sincerely hope it’s not because of a lack of alternatives; organic grain/seed does exist and is plantable. I haven’t been behind the scenes to know what it’s actually like there, but I know a few scientists that work there and they are conscientious people that have lives and eat food just like everyone else.

Our industrial food system does have real issues that need to be addressed (e.g. large carbon footprint, some perverse incentives to not rotate crops frequently or let fields lay fallow to recover). GM isn’t a panacea, but it is one of the tools we’re likely to need in our toolkit as we take on the challenge of feeding the world, preserving the environment and dealing with climate change. The popular portrayal of biotech firms as (mostly) evil is overly simplistic and I hope a more nuanced view prevails.

Ever on and on.




1I like to think beans were chosen as the plant because they are also related to peas and that’s a nod to Gregor Mendel

2 The actual plant solution to growing tall is lignification— woodiness— to grow up. There’s a bit more to it than that, but trees can get tall because of lignin.


PiPC7: I am Groot.

This is a series on the blog where I write about plants that feature heavily in the plots of popular culture. Spoiler alerts apply to these, even though some of the series writes about things that are quite old. However, for this one, about “Gaurdians of The Galaxy”, spoilers definitely apply.

Note: I talk about the science behind trees in this post. I am not a tree biologist or physiologist. I’m taking my knowledge of how plants work and writing about it in a hopefully fun way.

In “Guardians of The Galaxy” over the weekend. One of the Guardians is Groot, a walking tree that is sort of intelligent but doesn’t speak English very well (or whatever it is they’re supposed to be speaking in the galaxy). It’s a fun movie overall, when the opening titles have an old school Walkman with Peter Quill dancing to Redbone’s ‘Come and Get your Love’, I had an inkling I was in for a pretty fun time.

I was particularly interested in seeing this when I heard that one of the Guardians is a walking tree. One that can branch and grow almost at will, extending his legs to grow taller, sprouting twigs, releasing luminescent pollen to light up a room, and even protecting his friends in a wooden cocoon. He has a face, but hasn’t mastered speaking as all he says in various intonations is ‘I am Groot’ (this is exactly how R2D2 is used in “Star Wars”, Chewbacca too come to think of it); other characters speak to him and the audience imagines what the beeps actually say). Groot can also flower at will, as when he produces a flower, a nice small, blue one for a little girl (which could be weird too….flowers are the reproductive organs of the plant after all).

Groot is far from the first walking tree in popular culture. There are the Ents from the ‘Lord of The Rings’ trilogy. They are interesting; like real trees, they live on time scales greater than those of humans and so take their time, having an extended meeting before deciding to go destroy Isengard. The Ents are also tree-farmers; maintainers of a forest that they can move around and have the trees follow them. It’s like all trees are Ents, and can transform and move about when roused.

There’s also a walking tree in the first series of the rebooted ‘Doctor Who’. The Doctor and Rose visit the year 5 Billion to witness the destruction of the Earth by an expanding sun and luminaries gather to witness the event, including a tree-woman from Cheem. She moves like a person, not really wooden at all. And in something relatively creepy to me, she gives away cuttings of her grandfather as greeting gifts for everyone. Would those cuttings grow into intelligent beings too? Or just be plants? And no human would do something like that…give a cutting of a relative as a gift. It’s one example of just how different and alien plants are.

So could Groot actually work, as an organism? Trees on Earth, as are all plants have a decentralized body plan. As Groot demonstrates repeatedly, he can branch, and grow in many directions at once at the rate of a super-weed or at least within human second-to-second time scales. So it’s a little hard to imagine a plant developing centralized senses (i.e. a head, like we have) although plants do have sophisticated sensors of their environments, including for light; as that, more than anything is essential for plants to know (Go look at my friend Johnna’s blog for a primer on Photosynthesis; a lot of the other light receptors plants have are designed to optimize the position of plants for photosynthesis).

Plants DO move. Bunchberry plants have a hair trigger pollen launcher; whenever they’re hit, or touched, the trigger gets tripped and pollen gets flung out of the flower. It’s a really fast biological response. Cucumbers and other viny plants grow in a circular motion until the vine finds something to cling onto, and then it coils around it, all plants ‘nutate’ or rotate in a circadian rhythm as they grow and of course, thigns like sunflowers famously track the light during the day, changing flower and leaf direction. Flowers can also close and open at various times. And of course, roots grow down into the soil. Venus flytraps can also close fairly quickly when triggered by prey.

Trees can be flexible and strong, though lignin; the complex molecule that gives wood it’s toughness, is not the most flexible substance ever. And Groot does have a certain stiffness about his movements.

The amazing thing about Groot is that he walks and runs and keeps up which implies the flexing of ‘muscles’, even though plants don’t really have those. They can expand and contract cells by changing water pressure inside of their cells, so perhaps some kind of hydraulic muscle system could evolve. The other thing I thought about with the fast growth responses Groot displays are just how many hormones must be coursing through his plant vascular (circulatory) system to promote and inhibit growth of plant cells that really cause directional changes in growing plant organs. Particularly the hormone auxin, which is involved in places.

It’s also not clear that Groot photosynthesizes; he doesn’t have a lot of leaves. However, plants also have mitochondria, celluar energy factories and it’s possible he’s evolved to metabolize more by respiration alone; although then there’s an issue because a large part of plant life is that they take carbon dioxide from the atmosphere and turn it into sugars that fuel the growth and provide the ‘stuff’ that the plant is made of (plants build themselves from the air! And I imagine Groot can eat things and is root system is his gut, absorbing water and other nutrients all plants need). So when Groot is extending himself quickly, just how much carbon is he burning through? Plants can store carbon in the form of starch, but they use those reserves during the night or seasons when photosytnthesis can’t occur (like the winter time). As far as I know, the activity of photosynthesis at night is quite low (e.g. star/moonlight are too faint to really significantly drive the process significantly, but I’m sure some is going on).

Groot sacrifices himself at the end and is smashed into a lot of pieces, but Rocket takes a cutting of him and the end credits show Groot slowly growing back. This is in fact, possible for plants to do. It’s possible to regenerate a whole plant from a single cell, so long as there’s a living cell there, the whole plant can re-grow. The new Groot will have the same genetics as the previous Groot, though it’s unclear whether he’d remember his past life. There is some evidence that plants can ‘remember’ things, even cross generationally largely via epigenetic mechanisms (chemical changes to how DNA is structured/packaged that don’t actually change the DNA sequence itself)…but it’s not a brain as such; and I’m having trouble figuring our just what a centralized plant brain would look like. It may not be impossible. It just means I haven’t thought enough about it. Groot isn’t the brightest bulb, it seems, so perhaps he has some sort of rudimentary brain that hasn’t mastered everything about the world for non-cellulose structured life.

Another funny thing about trees is that most of their biomass is in fact not living. Tree rings represent annual growth cycles, but those previous layers end being a structure for the living tree tissue to grow around (trees tend to get thicker as they get older). Groot can seemingly thicken and re-thin almost at will.

Groot is a fun character, and one that I hope gets people thinking more about plants and just how they work down here on Earth.




[Editor’s note: Things have been quiet around here. I’ve been busy living life, writing in other places and work has gotten hectic. Hope to be back to regular posting soon! ]

PiPC6: Weirwoods

Plants in Popular Culture 6: “A Song of Ice and Fire” (Game of Thrones)

This is part 6 of an occasional series on my blog about plants in popular culture where certain plants are of central importance to a story. I mostly work from memory and try to link them to actual plant science here in the real world (which I also do from memory, though do look up some things if I am utterly clueless about a plant/process). I am open for suggestions to this series.

Needless to say, there are some spoilers here (not major ones, I don’t think, but spoilers nonetheless).

I am into book 4 in the Game of Thrones series, but I think that’s far enough to talk about some of the plant life in Westeros and Essos. I’m sure more may be revealed about Weirwoods particularly in subsequent books, but I can always come back and update this post; please don’t spoil anything for me!

Plants in Westeeros and Essos are part of what defines the world in ‘A Game of Thrones’ in both big and small ways. The Maesters in Oldtown have come up with all sorts of potions, and poisons and tinctures from all over the Realm. Most commonly used given all the wounding and bloodiness is the ‘Milk of the Poppy’; what we might call opium in this world. Plants are also the sources of scents to make what seems like a rather dirty world at least smell fresh. And of course, there are the visible plants and forests that define various regions of Westeros and Essos.

The Trident has it’s forested regions, The Southron region ruled by High Garden is a bountiful breadbasket, including The Arbor, an entire island devoted to wine (I want to live there)! Dorne is desert. Heading North, there’s the Harrowlands and marshes near The Neck. Then that gives way to sentinel trees that are evergreen. North of The Wall, there’s the haunted forest that then gives way to mountains and The land of always winter. I don’t know where Benjen Stark is, but he may well be one of ‘The Others’ coming to invade as winter descends.

In Essos, there’s the great Dothraki sea, a massive grassland where the Khalassars ride free. The rest of the continent seems largely devoid of plants, though perhaps they’re just not well defined in the book series– The Free Cities all seem like they’re in rather barren lands, relying on trade to survive. Outside the slave cities, there are agricultural fields. In Mereen, before Daenerys Targaryan invades, the fields are burned. I’m sure it’s a military tactic to this day; burning food supplies to deny invaders or to starve out a population.

There is one plant, native solely to Westeros as far as I’ve read that I’d like to discuss that are of particular significance: The white barked, red-leafed Weirwood trees.

From ‘Game of Thrones’, HBO. ‘Winter is Coming’ S1:E1 Source: http://fangirlisms.com/2011/05/06/game-of-thrones-episode-1-winter-is-coming/3/

My recollection of the story is that the Weirwoods were all over Westeros in the days of The first people to populate Westeros: ‘The Children of The Forest’ worshipped the heart trees and carved faces in many of them. The bone white smooth bark contrasted with the blood red sap and 5-pointed blood red leaves (like the Canadian flag?) make for haunting imagery. The Weirwood is apparently a deciduous tree, shedding it’s leaves when winter comes— an unpredictable occurrence in this world with non-standard length seasons. How plants adapt to varying conditions is a very real question in plant biology, although our conditions on Earth are more stable than those in the Game of Thrones world.  When the Andals invaded Westeros from across the sea (From Essos? Or a continent to the South that’s not in the present world map? Asshai, where Melisandre is from isn’t even on the Game of Thrones World Map; so there’s more to the world). The Andals worshipped ‘The Seven’ and the children of the forest as well as the Weirwoods went away for the most part except on The island of Faces and within castle keeps where Weirwoods are ‘heart trees’ and people can observe The Old Gods. Weirwoods do grow wild North of The Neck, suggesting that Northmen and the Wildlings beyond the wall may be descended in part from the lost children of The Forest; or that they rejected The Seven after settling there.

The eerie Weirwoods stand almost as silent sentinels, witnessing everything that goes on where they grow, perhaps only the ones with faces, such as those standing in the center of castle keeps as heart trees in their contemplative groves. It is apparent there is some magic to Weirwoods; they must grow slowly over time and are likely ancient and yet their carved bark never heals; red sap constantly leaks out of the wounded areas and does not kill them. Weirwood is used as a material for construction as well as bows and is apparently highly prized as it does not rot and is also extremely strong. The latter two facts are fascinating from a plant physiology point of view. Wounds that don’t heal and wood that doesn’t rot; Weirwood clearly has remarkable anti-disease and anti-herbivory/insect pest invasion defense mechanisms. The heart trees at least all grown in great pools , so their water source is not an issue; even though they apparently can grow without requiring flooding.

Their blood red leaves must photosynthesize some how; when leaves turn red in the fall here in New England, that is a light absorbing pigment, anthocyanin usually there to deal with plant stress to light; but that isn’t quite blood red, it’s more purple in hue. So the Weirwoods may have a novel red pigment that is optimized to absorb the Westeros sunlight, perhaps taking advantage of part of the spectrum other plants can’t. This is all wild speculation on my part, of course, but if Weirwoods absorb light in the infrared, green and blue parts of the spectrum and let red light reflect, the leaves would appear red to our eyes. There are other kinds of photosystems out there, besides the ones we’re familiar with in plants.

There is something mystical about Weirwoods (a cultural significance that few plants enjoy); it’s respected all over the realm. And people with the green vision may be able to tap into them and see what they see or witness what they have witnessed in their thousand-year-old faces. I think I also sort of rembmer thinking after a heart tree was described that Weirwoods formed a massive underground root system and may indeed be all one massive plant covering all of Westeros; such vegetative propagation is very real, even amongst trees. It could be weirwoods, give the right cues, could spring up as if by magic all over Westeros again as their roots may not have been destroyed. The Eyerie, in the Vale of Arryn, does not have a heart tree. They tried planting one there, but it died; perhaps due to the high elevation or perhaps due to a lack of connection to it’s fellow Weirwood trees (it can’t quite be due to cold alone as they live North of The Wall). Also, I’ve just gotten to Dorne in the books, but haven’t heard that there are Weirwoods in the desert there or even as a heart tree in Sunspear. Perhaps that is why as a reader shifts from region to region when reading, the Weirwoods in some cases seem to have similar expressions; or is that just the perception of individual characters?

When winter does finally come, I wonder if the Weirwoods will lose their leaves or if they go dormant like deciduous trees do in the winters here. They are certainly hardy trees, able to survive a lot, but susceptible to The Andals’ axes. Also, as yet, there’s not such thing as a Weirwood flower; curious to know if those exist.

Winter is coming, that’s clear. How will the Weirwoods handle it?






PiPC5: Sideways Chocolat

PiPC5: Sideways Chocolat

It’s Valentine’s Day and that either means romance or getting wasted to forget you’re single (or just treating yourself). My friend Johnna has covered roses today. In this edition of Plants in Popular Culture (PiPC), I am covering two movies where plants are heavily featured: “Sideways” (2004) and “Chocolat” (2000) featuring two plants that feature the finer things in life: Wine and chocolate.

“Sideways” is the story of friends Miles and Jack (Paul Giamatti and Thomas Hayden Church) as they tour the California wine country (editorial comment: this is a great and hilarious movie). It is not exactly a romantic movie, even though it ends up well for Miles, who is not exactly the best guy, though arguably better than Jack. It says something that they’re both creative types (writer and actor, respectively I think). It also shows the ugly and beautiful sides of wine/alcohol: Drunk dialing an ex…that always never goes well. But then there’s this meditation of Maya’s:

“Maya: How it’s a living thing. I like to think about what was going on the year the grapes were growing; how the sun was shining; if it rained. I like to think about all the people who tended and picked the grapes. And if it’s an old wine, how many of them must be dead by now. I like how wine continues to evolve, like if I opened a bottle of wine today it would taste different than if I’d opened it on any other day, because a bottle of wine is actually alive. And it’s constantly evolving and gaining complexity. That is, until it peaks, like your ’61. And then it begins its steady, inevitable decline.

Miles Raymond: Hmm.

Maya: And it tastes so fucking good.”

“Chocolat” is the story of single mother Vianne (Juliette Binoche //editorial comment: she’s gorgeous) and daughter Anouk (Victoire Thivisol, who has an imaginary kangaroo named pontoof (sp.??)). They arrive in a small French village in 1959 for the beginning of Lent and open a chocolate shop across from the Catholic Church in the town (this town takes it’s Catholicism seriously!). It is implied that Vianne and daughter are atheists (gasp!!!!). She starts selling her chocolate to the villagers, who become a lot happier when they indulge in the pleasure of chocolate that Vianne helps them pick with a weird hypnotic wheel that people gaze into and say what they see. This somehow tells her what chocolate confection they’ll most enjoy. She also seems keen on observing behavior to divine what will be most tempting. The mayor of the town (Anothony Garcia) is deadest against the Chocolatterie and tries to shut it down. It’s basically the story of outsider coming to closed off small town and opening their minds and helping them discover who they are and what they want in life rather than blindly obeying the strictures of the church/mayor’s authority (“Hot Fuzz” is a similar kind of narrative). And yes, Vianne falls in love with Johnny Depp, a drifter who comes through town as part of a traveling gang/circus/trader convoy. Vianne also has an odd business model; where she’ll give out a free sample first, and of course everyone is enticed into buying more. In that sense, she’s like a drug dealer, corrupting the young, old and everyone in between (or at least bringing in a cultural exchange).

As I write this, I’m watching Chocolat…there’s a scene where Vianne tells her daughter the story of why she’s a chocolate peddler. Her father went on a trip to Central America (where chocolate comes from!) to study medicinal properties of plants, he falls in love with a wanderer, has a daughter, and one day, wife and daughter travel around peddling medicinal chocolate confections to the world; obviously Vianne has expanded the idea of medicine to using chocolate to heal people’s lives/solve problems.

Wine (Vitis vinifera) and chocolate (Theobroma cacao) are both plants of huge economic importance (both are multi-billion dollar industries) and in moderation are probably healthy. And both have a long history with humans, and both benefitted from the Columbian exchange; chocolate was refined in Europe with sugar and milk while wine was introduced all over the world, including to the US west coast where “Sideways” takes place. Chocolate and wine are of course both associated with romantic occasions, like Valentine’s Day…and of course both are known comfort foods if you’re single. They’re both plants that humans have developed intimate relationships with.

The Chocolate genome and the grape genome have been sequenced. A genome of each, anyhow; there are many varieties of chocolate and grapes that aren’t covered. They’re so called draft genomes, the full diversity of the species is likely yet to be discovered at the DNA level (it’s why you might need your specific DNA sequenced to have insight about what your genes say about you; the draft human genome doesn’t necessarily tell you that). Genome sequences let us know organisms a lot better…get into their jeans, er genes, that is. It’s what helps guide breeding of new and better varieties of plants (higher yield, disease resistant, drought tolerant, etc.). It also gives specific sequences of individual genes (both plants have ~30,000 genes, on par with many other complex multi-celled organisms, including us) that can be taken from the genome and put into another plant with genetic engineering methods to bring a desired trait into a plant where it doesn’t exist (as far as I know, this has not happened with either Chocolate or grapes). One example is a tool used by scientists the world over; the Green Fluorescent Protein. It’s a gene from a jellyfish.

These plants are not just in a lot of popular culture, they have a cultural heritage that goes back into antiquity. We love these plants, and have been married to them since we learned what they could do for us. Thanks to modern science, we also know a lot more about them and can hopefully continue our relationship with them long into the future (both industries face challenges of climate change, pests, diseases, etc.).

I hope you can enjoy one of the products of these plants this week by yourself, with a friend or a “more than friend”.


PiPC4: Leverage.

This is part 4 of plants in popular culture! In this one, I’m going to talk about several episodes of the show which center on plants and the biotech industry. There is more information in the included links, but see also my friend Johnna’s New Under The Sun blog for a good primer on GM technology.

‘Leverage’ is one of a genre of shows with a Robin Hood theme (I can imagine why that’s appealing these days); con artists become good guys to steal from the rich & powerful and help those without means get justice (that isn’t attainable through usual channels for various reasons). If you haven’t watched it, it’s a really fun show. They have a light touch, some tense and involved plots, and I am a huge shipper for Pardison or Harker (the couple of Parker & Hardison— if someone as weird as Parker can learn to love, maybe there’s hope for me too).

I recently powered through the series on Netflix and was struck by not only one, but two, episodes where they con two different large plant biotech firms (or people working at them, more accurately).

There’s a lot of opinion out there about Genetically modified organisms (GMOs) and whether they’re safe or not. Like any technology, GM is neutral. It is how it’s used on a case-by-case basis that determines whether it’s actually bad or not. There are some real upsides to GM plants. But of course we have to be circumspect in our use of them. They aren’t silver bullets that will solve all the world’s problems. But there are some uses that are indeed completely worthwhile; if a GM crop increases the nutritional value of a crop or it uses up less space/input to grow the same amount, or it’s a super-biofuel source those are good things for the world.

In S3:E3 of the show, the Leverage crew take down Wakefield Inc., a plant biotech firm with an impressive security system. And a firm that’s on shaky financial footing. Biotech is expensive. Or more specifically they take down a scientist and the colluding head of security that are trying to save the company in a rather radical way; the scientist has stored away a strain of the fungus Ug99 (a very real plant pathogen that is devastating to non-resistant wheat, which is currently most wheat grown in Africa/Asia). The scientist has spent billions developing a strain of wheat that can resist the deadly Ug99 strain that no one else has (such a strain of wheat does apparently exist). And then she was going to just release the pathogen and sell the Wakefield resistant wheat to farmers who wanted to protect their crop. A plant pathogen is potentially a devastating weapon.

Is the Ug99 strain the intellectual property of the company? Or should it be widely shared so many minds can work on finding a solution? My personal answer is that when it’s something that potentially devastating, sharing is the better policy; but it does mean potential competition from other companies as they race for a solution (this happens to some degree now; there are several very large plant biotech/Ag firms producing seeds and pesticides to sell to farmers).

I don’t think they ever explicitly bring up GMO technology; the resistant wheat could have been bred with traditional genetics (itself a form of genetic modification) assuming a naturally occurring resistance gene could be found (which may not exist in every case).

In S4:E5 the Leverage crew takes on Verd Agriculture, a pretty clear stand in for Monsanto. They’ve stolen an “open source” potato developed by a small farmer with a possibly flimsy claim that she has used Verd seeds in the development of the potato. So how can they keep us out of there? Modern agriculture owes a lot to small farmers selecting desirable traits over time and slowly bringing them together. The scientific revolution has brought a new twist on old methods that traditional breeding can’t hold a candle to.

Modern genetics began in the 19th century with Gregor Mendel and his observing the physical appearance (the phenotype) of traits that vary in pea plants (like round vs. wrinkled seeds or short vs. tall plants) and showing that they’re inherited in very specific patterns– particularly when tracking multiple traits at one time. Nearly a century later, the double helix of DNA was proposed and it’s mechanisms of coding information deciphered. Note: I just related a huge part of the history of science in a few brief sentences. The obvious connection between the DNA sequence (and the specific organization of the 4 bases that make up DNA into genes– the genotype) and the phenotype that scientists almost take for granted now did not exist. In fact, the genotype-phenotype question is still a very open one when it comes to what are known as complex traits (where more than one gene contributes to that particular trait). And even more recently thrown into the mix is the field of epigenetics; that can also affect how genes are expressed and therefore physical traits. There is a lot of complexity in biology to say the least.

Modern high throughput technologies, more basic knowledge than ever about how plants work, and knowing what genes underlie specific traits are being applied to the world’s food supply. For many plants (ones that have a level of genetic/DNA sequence information in a database), there are detectable genetic markers (a specific DNA sequence or even a single DNA base pair) that associate with specific traits can be probed in an individual seed (like overall biomass, for instance). Seeds with the most desirable combination of markers/traits can now be selected without even having to grow the plant (though in a lot of cases, combining traits is a long term experimental process involving growing thousands of plants and tossing out most of them)! The other big tool that modern molecular biologists have is the ability to find a gene that will confer a trait (e.g. herbivore resistance, like the Bt toxin that targets specific species of butterflies/moths that eat crop plants) to a plant via genetic modification; in this case it means inserting a gene into the genome; usually a random process, but there are some new technologies that enable plant scientists to target where that genetic modification lands. Of course, these new technologies are resource intensive and on a commercial scale, only the giant companies like Monsanto can viably do them (in fact, I think the seed genotyping technology is proprietary to Monsanto).

All of the above is by way of saying that a small farmer breeding a super-potato is a little far fetched, though not impossible if it’s a very well funded small farmer with a lab. So called bio-hacking is happening now– there was a funded kickstarter to create a visible light producing tree to replace street lamps (that I just don’t think will ever work), for instance. If a super-plant is created through natural breeding, is it any less engineered than a GMO? Another thing the corrupt CEO of Verd talks about is being able to distribute the super-potato globally. It’s true that a large company can distribute things a lot more widely than a single farmer ever could; even if she just gave it away as she did after the Leverage team steal it back (sprouting is a key trait in this episode as they only rescued a small part of the tuber; see my post on Tomacco for more on this).

So are big biotech seed companies evil? One reason companies make good targets is that they’re big and feed into a much larger industrialized system where we get a lot of our food here in the US. And of course size means that there are things that can fall through the cracks and lapses might occur (any organization has these problems). There are also instances where companies meet the minimal legal standard to operate/release a product, which can be insufficient in some cases (it might be legal, but from a human perspective or environmental one, it’s plainly insufficient). Companies that have intellectual property like Monsanto also really lock down their information and aren’t very transparent about their products. In Monsanto’s case, they are opening up a bit more with generalities of their technology and starting to talk to the end users of their products (not the farmers who buy their seeds, but to the people who end up eating the food those farmers produce). That is good to see. Another question to keep in mind is whether or not the issue is biotech specific or just a feature of agriculture generally; agriculture is disruptive, no matter what. The same is true of intellectual property issues; a lot of those are not biotech specific, but are broader problems with the patent system.

As for product safety, Monsanto knows that if they put out a truly dangerous product, they’re in a lot of trouble. I would hope any company would realize this and want to provide a service that helps consumers, employees, the company itself, and shareholders all without destroying the planet. But then I am an idealist. Nathanael Johnson on Grist did a fantastic series about GMO technology that is worth taking a look at if you’d like to know more about them. It’s not all good or all bad; it’s messy and complicated. GM can do some real good in the world, but is not a panacea– I think even a big biotech firm would admit that. Use the right tool for the right situation, which won’t always be the GMO (even if that runs counter to a company’s interest; science ideally provides robust answers to questions…it’s not always an answer you or a company will like, however).

In the end, ‘Leverage’ (which has a lot more food/plant centered episodes too) gets a few things right, but is best understood as getting back at ‘The Man’ and helping the little guy, which of course is really satisfying for most of us. No one likes a bully or feeling crushed under the enormous weight of a company, Government or other large institution. There is risk to any new technology, but just doing without it is also not the best option either. Mindfulness is becoming all the rage these days and in my opinion, mindful use of any technology makes good sense.



PiPC3: The Merciless Peppers of Quetzalacatenango

This is the 3rd in my series on plants in popular culture where I talk about some of the biology of plants and their deeper meaning within that piece of culture. The first and second in the series are here and here.

The Merciless Peppers of Quetzalacatenango.

“Guatamala Insanity pepper”

In season 8, episode 9 of “The Simpsons”, ‘El Viaje Misterioso de Nuestro Jomer’, Homer has an encounter with another (but fictitious in this case) member of the nightshade family. Tomacco was a hybrid of two members of that family separated by millions of years of evolution. In the phylogenetic tree in this paper (a branched diagram showing the DNA sequence relatedness of species), the capsicum genus is in between that of tobacco and tomatoes. Capsicum species are native to The Americas (the tropical parts, not so much the temperate parts of North America).

In this episode, Homer, a highly critical chili connoisseur, goes to the annual Springfield Chili cook off, despite Marge trying to keep him away because of how he behaves (drinks too much beer…this could be another post in itself, though I swear, not all of these posts will be about “The Simpsons”). Homer catches a brief smell of the cook off and Marge allows him to attend on the promise that he won’t drink any beer.

Homer shows up and stares down the chili cook-off stalls like in a Western movie and he draws his wooden spoon— “carved from a larger spoon” as Lenny notes. Homer proceeds to go through all of the stalls critiquing the various chili concoctions and deeming them all wanting and not hot enough.

What makes a chili pepper hot? Or not? It’s largely down to a molecule called capsaicin. The more that a pepper produces, the spicier it’s going to be perceived. The way capsaicin concentration is often presented in the Scoville Heat Units (SHU), named after Wilbur Scoville who devised it in 1912. Scoville’s method is a dilution based test where capsaicin oil is extracted in alcohol from dried fruit and the extract is diluted until heat (pungency) can just barely or no longer be tasted. This is a subjective test (everyone’s taste buds are not the same, nor are our tolerance for spiciness in food). It does provide a sense of how hot something is though from a score of 0 (a bell pepper) to the current champion cultivar is the Trinidad Moruga Scorpion pepper with a Scoville heat unit measure of ~2,000,000.

Chief Wiggum is prepared this year with ‘The Merciless Peppers of Quetzalacatenango’…

“… grown deep in the primeval jungle by the inmates of a Guatemalan insane asylum.” In the lore of ‘The Simpsons’, these have become known as ‘Guatamala insanity peppers’. Wiggum even dons a welder’s mask to add an additional pepper to his chili.

When Homer just barely puts one of these peppers on his tongue, it burns so much he has to find something to drink; beer is at hand, but he doesn’t drink it only dipping his tongue in it to remove the heat (capsaicin is not water soluble, but is in fat, so milk or drinking straight up butter is the way to go, alcohol actually makes it worse), he nearly drinks a candle and has an idea. He coats his tongue (and throat?) with candle wax and returns to Chief Wiggum’s booth and eats every one of the insanity peppers in the chili in rapid succession. Marge sees Homer with the beer and stalks off angry. Homer, thinking he’s been triumphant walks away, but suddenly starts hallucinating and winds up in a dream world with a tortoise who guides Homer to his spirit animal; a wolf voiced by Johnny Cash who tells Homer to find his soul mate and puts doubt in his mind that it’s Marge.

Chemical properties of Capsaicin

Capsaicin molecule

Can Capsaicin make you hallucinate? Yes, apparently so. I am shocked to learn that this is real. The best part; the guy sitting next to the reporter who’s used to the pepper he bred barely reacts to having eaten an even bigger slice. The story is a few years old and this pepper is on the order of 1.5 million SHU.  Deadly nightshade (Atropa belladonna), another member of the nightshade family, is not only poisonous, but also hallucinogenic. It does have medicinal uses, however (atropine is derived from it). All of these compounds that induce hallucination are alkaloids, a large class of plant secondary metabolites. Nightshade is distantly related to chili peppers (native to old vs. new world, respectively), but clearly they have potential hallucinogenic properties; and probably different mechanisms. It should be noted that enough capsaicin or extract from deadly nightshade or even the fruit of potato plants can be lethal.

So where does the Gautamala insanity pepper rate on the Scoville scale? My guess is that it’s up near the 3,000,000 range, basically on par with pepper spray (where capsaicin is the main irritant) and pure capsaicin has an estimated SHU of 15,000,000. It’s a cartoony level of capsaicin.

Where is Capsaicin made and what’s it for?

Like all metabolites, there is a biosynthetic pathway for capsaicin that has been identified. It is expressed mainly in the placental cell layer of the pepper (adjacent to the seeds) and thus most of the capsaicin is produced inside the chili fruit (you have to bite into it to get a real dose of heat). Capsaicin is thought to serve as an anti-herbivory chemical (particularly to deter mammals), but it may also have some anti-fungal and anti-insect effects as well. Birds are not affected by capsaicin and so can eat the fruit of the Capsicum plant and spread its seeds around. For those of us who like spicy food (or have gotten our nerve cells that perceive it desensitized, there are some potential health benefits to it as well; it’ll release endorphins, act as an anti-oxidant, and if used as  a topical agent, can deaden pain on the skin.

Soul mate

After a lot of exploring (Moe: I’m not your soul mate. I’m a well-wisher in that I do not wish you any specific harm), Homer does find his soul mate is Marge at the end of the episode (Phew!). And the town of Springfield gets to enjoy a shipment of short shorts that fell off a ship that nearly ran aground except for the quick work of Marge and Homer to replace a lighthouse lamp. Through burning his soul (by literally burning his body and mind), Homer has a revelation about who his soul mate is (I’ll just editorialize here and say it’s not as if any of us have just one person we’re compatible with out there— so if you’re single, don’t despair! It may be bleak, but it’s not that bleak!). There’s something really interesting about food being able to get inside and access the deepest parts of ourselves (The movie ‘Chocolat’ may be another example of this, look for it in a future installment of this series)— particularly ones that have capsaicin to drive mind altering hallucinations.