Monday, May 24, 2010

Beware the Grass Pea

There's been a big uptick in grass pea consumption in recent years - with accompanying paralysis (especially in children).

Grass pea (Lathyrus sativus*) is a crop of last resort. It's commonly grown from Southwest Asia through the eastern Horn of Africa, where it's mostly used as livestock forage. It has tremendous resilience in the face of environmental stress and pestilence and is often the only thing left standing after severe droughts and civil wars. Grass peas taste good, are full of protein, can grow in terrible soil and fix nitrogen, however, they also produce a potent neurotoxin, ODAP, which causes paralysis of the lower limbs when consumed in excess over extended periods.

It's a real tragedy, but thankfully it's one that science and crop biodiversity can do something about.

ICARDA, a research station of the international agricultural science organization, CGIAR, is working on screening germplasm from all over the region to find locally-adapted landraces with very low levels of ODAP. When I first heard about this story, I wondered why they didn't just use mutation breeding or genetic engineering to knock out the toxin altogether instead of just trying to find low-toxin ones, but apparently the toxin plays an important role in the grass pea's stress tolerance.

It's a pretty simple project that could make a really big difference.

*Sweet pea is in this genus

Wednesday, May 19, 2010

an Epiphyte in New York

I was admiring the big, broad trees along our campus' main road today when I noticed some small, non-lobed leaves coming out of one of the oaks. On further inspection, what appeared to be a 3-foot tall cherry tree was growing out of the main crotch, nearly 10-feet above the ground!

I wonder what other creatures may be hidden up there...

(besides the masses of tent caterpillars that is...)

Monday, May 17, 2010

Chinese GM Cotton increases Fruit Pest

I imagine there will be some hoopla over this new Science article, so here's the cliff notes version:

  1. Cotton bollworm was a serious pest in China and was controlled with pesticide sprays
  2. Transgenic Bt cotton was introduced as a better management strategy for bollworm
  3. In the absence of regular sprays, a minor pest (the mirid bug) has become a real problem
This isn't a genetic engineering story - it's an integrated pest management story.

Kudos to the Chinese ag scientists for being on top of this! I hope they can come up with some cheap and safe solutions for their farmers.

Sunday, May 16, 2010

Our Carcinogenic World

The old rule of thumb was that only a few percent of cancer cases are due to environmental contaminants. A new report from the President's Cancer Panel suggests we have much more to worry about.

It's a big part of who I am to scoff at people who cling to new fears. My grandparents didn't need to drink filtered water and I'm sure not gonna start that as a new tradition.

However, a recent On Point episode kinda freaked me out. I normally don't pay much attention to environmental alarmists, but my attention was snagged when one of the guests (who was arguing that our world is contaminated) dismissed the blanket assertion of a caller that buying organic food was a reliable way to protect yourself from toxins. They also gave the specific example that some municipalities treat their drinking water such that it becomes contaminated with carcinogens - and that you should filter your water.

I guess the only options are heavy-handed regulation or living in a neurotic bubble?


Wednesday, May 12, 2010

a Better Steak

The Wall Street Journal has a story describing how beef lost its flavor as meat efficiency and output were maximized.

Man, we just keep getting the same story over and over again.

This is why I want a chest freezer!

Tuesday, May 11, 2010

Girls make better Gatherers

Though men may be better at reading maps and finding randomly hidden objects, a new study suggests that women are better at remembering routes to known objects - i.e. men are better at hunting and women are better at gathering.

The study has a neat design: they saddled pairs of indigenous Mexican men and women with GPS and activity monitors and then sent them out to collect mushrooms. Women were much more efficient foragers - they collected the same amount of mushrooms as the men but used a whole lot less energy (because they presumably knew where they were going). Women also found a greater variety of mushrooms from more sites (collecting from small patches of mushrooms). Meanwhile, the men ran all up and down the mountain, wasting a ton of energy looking for motherlodes.*

I'm always a little skeptical of these evo-psych Just So Stories, but it's interesting all the same (and it matches my personal experience!).

h/t: MycoRant

*Hopefully they controlled for confounders - e.g. how much time men and women usually spend mushroom hunting in this society. I don't have access to the article...

Monday, May 10, 2010

The Garden Plan!

My 20' x 20' community garden plot is up and running. This picture was taken last Thursday - note that our trees still aren't leafed out completely. It actually snowed as recently as this past Sunday.

North Neighbor was planting onions with his son when I dropped sweet corn in dual rows along the North and South borders (I'll be hand-pollinating them). Our frost free date isn't for another week yet, but the weather when I planted was consistently hot - though of course now they're forecasting hard frosts for tonight and maybe tomorrow, so we'll see what happens. I sowed peas a few days before the corn, but hopefully they won't emerge for another 2 days. My salad greens and carrots were sowed two weeks ago, when I raised the deer netting. I'm not too worried about them though - I had dropped some seed in my deck planters nearly a month ago, and all have survived several frosts so far.

I didn't take West Neighbor seriously when she said that weeds would become a big problem. I know a lot of people will abandon their plots to chest-high weeds later in the summer, seeding the rest of us - but I don't plan on having any bare soil by then. In another few weeks I'll transplant in fall broccoli and warm weather stuff - beans, locally-adapted melons and a panel of tomatoes from an amateur breeding project.

Stopping by after the first post-till rain last week, the problem became more obvious. The whole field had a slight green sheen of millions of tiny sprouts. It won't be much of a problem when I transplant in larger plants, but the carrot and salad subplot I sowed two weeks ago is an emerging nightmare. I'm gonna have to take my own advice to properly identify my salad greens. Maybe this is why other people built up raised mounds of compost and dirt to plant in.

Good thing I actually planted in furrows for once...

Tuesday, May 4, 2010

Flower Development FAIL

Development doesn't always go as planned. That's a normal dandelion seed head in the background but the one in front tried to make 3 in 1.

I guess it's Catholic.

a Call for Translational Genetic Engineering

Anti-GM activists love to point out how the much-hyped promises of genetic engineering never really came to pass, and they're absolutely correct - we've had this technology for 25 years and have almost nothing to show for it. The thing is, many of these game-changing, high-tech crops have been created, they just haven't been released.

Dennis Gonsalves, famous for the transgenic fruit that saved the Hawaiian papaya industry,* spoke recently on campus. The approach he used to create transgenic virus resistance has been proven for years and yet virtually no resistant crop varieties have been released - which is especially tragic given the many crippling viral diseases of the developing world.

Dennis' experiences illuminate some reasons behind this.

Don't wait for your variety to be perfect
The photo above is from his first greenhouse trial after transforming the papaya on the left with novel virus resistance. Conventional wisdom dictates that the next step would have been years of tests and breeding to produce the best possible version - but by then (with additional years required for regulation) the papaya industry would have been wiped out and there'd be no farmers left to adopt the resistant varieties.

Don't overthink it

Learning to navigate regulation was much more complex and difficult than Dennis could have imagined. He repeatedly asserted that it was best to be a little naive and overly optimistic and just jump in with both feet. There are always people who "know" that you won't be able to get your variety through regulation or that the public won't accept it, but the truth is you never really know until you try.

Don't miss cultural opportunities
He also emphasized opportunities that arise from cultural issues. Hawaiian papaya farmers were desperate for a cure for papaya ringspot disease and were eager to try the transgenic variety. Furthermore, this population (many of who were of Asian and Japanese birth) had a sophisticated understanding of the Japanese consumer and fruit market. Their industry organization was therefore able to make great inroads into the Japanese papaya market.

Although regulation of transgenic crops is extremely rigorous in Japan, it's also apolitical. When transgenic papayas were found in loads of putatively non-transgenic Hawaiian papayas twice, Japanese regulators worked with the Hawaiian industry to establish proper identity preservation systems. If the same had happened in Europe, it surely would have led to a scandal and a ban on all Hawaiian papayas. As it stands now, Japanese approval of the transgenic variety is expected this year, 12 years after the process was initiated.

Dennis also described his disappointing failure to get virus-resistant papaya approved in Thailand, where this fruit is a core part of the traditional diet. Despite promising field trials, interested farmers and a rapidly growing virus epidemic, the Thai government has vacillated with moratoriums on transgenic field tests (largely thanks to Greenpeace protesters who broke into one of his test plots). It's unclear whether the government will lift the current research ban.

Overall he emphasized the importance for scientists to take this process into their own hands and really be tenacious.* It's not easy to usher a variety through the regulatory process, but it's profoundly important. Paraphrasing Dennis, 12 years from now, no one will read your articles, but your crop may help feed a nation.

*I should emphasize that the Hawaiian papaya "industry" consists of indigenous and immigrant family farms, hand-tended on small plots of land.
**As opposed to giving away control to a company or, more commonly, never doing anything with it at all.
Interestingly, an audience members asked what difficulties he had with corporate patents (as they key technologies required for genetic engineering are all patented by companies such as Monsanto). He said that on the contrary, companies provided absolutely no obstacles to his work. This sector was trivial to the big seed companies anyway and, more importantly, they've learned over the past two decades that their profits depend on good communication with the public, especially with altruistic projects like transgenic papaya.


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