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December, 2009:

Year End Wrap Up

Happy New Year’s Eve! (or New Year’s Day, I know I have at least a few readers in the eastern hemisphere)

I figured the last day of the year would be a fun time to look back as some of the posts from earlier in the year. I was originally going to do a top five most popular entries of the year but first of all, the list is dominated by my coverage of the maize genome and even if I condense that inside a single item, the list would still be dominated by recent entries (the result of a take off in readership over the past six months, thank you guys!) so instead I picked some entries I particularly enjoyed writing.

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Why I’m so Excited About the Banana Genome

The single most consumed fruit in America, yet in the tropics this bananas starchy relatives play an even more vital role in feeding whole nations.

At the Plant and Animal Genome Conference next month (which I really wish I was going to), there will be a workshop on banana genomics, but from the abstract submitted by Carine Charron (h/t to Jeremy at the Agricultural Biodiversity Weblog) I learned that:

The sequencing phase will be completed in early 2010 and automatic annotation will take place during the first semester of 2010.

Why is sequencing the banana genome important? Three reasons: (more…)

Not 2 + 2 = 5, but close

Among the many things Michael Specter talks about in his new book Denialism, is that fact that numeracy (the mathmatical equivalent of literacy) is no longer prized in todays society.

Case in point:

BP, for example, puts $1.3 billion to $1.6 billion a year into alternative energy projects. That’s about 1 percent of the company’s total $20 billion investment this year in future business prospects.*

I was going to beat up on the greenpeace blog where I read this sentence, but on a closer rereading I realized it was actually a direct quote from this article on the New York Times website. Come on people, 1% is easy, all you do is move the decimal place, you don’t even have to divide or multiply. Now there could be some obscure accounting reason that regular math doesn’t apply here, but if so it should have been mentioned and it wasn’t. (more…)

By The Numbers 12/19/09

In no way should any of the following statistics be taken as a dig against the people who study wheat. Wheat breeders have done so much with far few resources than have been invested in maize (corn) breeding. Ya’ll are amazing.
  • Year in with the largest wheat harvest in the US: 1981-1982 (2.8 billion bushels)
  • Year in with the largest wheat corn harvest in the US: 2007-2008(13 billion bushels)
  • The US’s share of global wheat exports in 1973-1974: 50%
  • The US’s share of global wheat exports today: 20%
  • Percentage increase in yield per acre of wheat 1969-present: 45%
  • Percentage increase in yield per acre of corn 1969-present: 90%
  • Estimated earliest year a program to develop genetically engineered wheat, launched today, would be able to win regulatory approval for any variety of GM wheat: 2018
  • Year in which Monsanto’s patent on their first generation Round-up Ready Soybeans expires: 2014
  • Number of lawsuits filed by Monsanto against individual farmers it claims infringed on its seed patents in the past decade: 125 (same source as above)
  • Number people threatened with legal action to force a settlement/sued by the RIAA in the same time period: more than 28,000
  • Amount the RIAA sued the russian website allofmp3.com for in 2006: $1.65 trillion
  • The gross domestic product of India in 2008: $1.2 trillion
  • First time the world knew what the far side of the moon looked like: 1959

Check out the article in The Guardian about wheat farming and the future of genetically engineered wheat.

Not Genetically Engineered: Square Watermelons

Square watermelon. Photo: laughlin, flickr (click photo to see in original context)

This is an addendum to my previous post: Not Genetically Engineered: Watermelons

At the time I thought the only awesome thing about watermelons that people calling genetic engineering was seedlessness. It turns out there are also square watermelons. Are they genetically engineered? I guess my title does kind of give away the answer.

Square watermelons aren’t the product of genetic engineering, or radiation mutagenesis, nor even conventional breeding. (more…)

How A Piece of Misinformation is Born

For an example of how fast information can be distorted as it is transmitted through the web, check out my previous documentation about how a paper on a GM trait not being in danger of escaping into wild populations was twisted into“Another failure of genetic engineering” in only a week.

Refuting every post across the web that makes false claims about agriculture, genetics, or plant biology would be, firstly impossible, and secondly, incredibly tedious. Once a piece of misinformation escapes into the wild it is far harder to call back than the horrible trans-genes of anti-GMO activists nightmares. A false idea will spread far faster among those who want to believe than it can be refuted (at length and in detail) by those who know better.

But this morning (or afternoon, or evening, or dead of night), I came across a wonderful example of what I believe has the potential to be an entirely new false fact that could float around the web, and obscure corners of the public consciousness for years to come (or be forgotten in a week, it’s hard to pick which facts will escape and thrive in the wild until they actually have.)

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Name That Plant: Nondescript Root Edition

Do you have any idea how long it’s been since we’ve had a name that plant post? The last one was almost a year ago on January 11th. So rather than let the tradition go a year untouched, this is an special edition of Name… that… Plant!

Can you name this root vegetable?

If you guess it correctly (and I’ve no idea if this one will be hard or easy but prior experience suggests someone will know within the first couple of comments, though on this other hand this isn’t a great picture) I’ll let you know as soon as I see the comment. If no one gets it by new year’s eve I’ll update again with the answer (and a better picture that gives it away).

This is what my part of California looked like on the Monday before Christmas! Glad I'm celebrating the holidays somewhere with snow.

I know it’s a couple of years early for me but…

By Jorge Cham, author of PhD comics who really does capture grad student life.

By way of The Daily Scan who in turn picked it up from The Intersection’s Sheril Kirshenbaum.

Merry Christmas

I hope everyone is having a great holiday (even if you don’t celebrate Christmas, if you live in the US it’s hard to get much work done today).

Right before I left town to celebrate the holidays with my folks, my zygocactus decided to flower for the first time ever*. I guess it really is a christmas cactus!

Christmas cactus in bloom!

Wishing all a safe and happy holiday!

*Well since it’s been a free living plant. As previously mentioned, the plant goes back at least four human generations propagated by cuttings.

Support Sugar Beet Farmers

Earlier today I was sent out, through rain and fallen snow, to visit the local grocery store for various last minute cookie ingredients, including confectioner’s sugar. The only brand I could find had this prominent label:

Powdered sugar at the local grocery store

First of all I’ve never understood why people care wether a given cup of sugar come from sugar cane or sugar beets. Regardless of source, white sugar is at least 99.9 percent pure* sucrose. Sucrose is a single molecule with an exact structure that is the same regardless of source. (Like salt crystals, or de-ionized water it’s a pure substance, only one step up from elements like carbon and oxygen).

Sucrose molecule

A model of the sucrose molecule. All sucrose, regardless of source, will have this same structure. If it doesn't, it's not sucrose. Image from wikimedia and distributed under the creative commons 3.0 share alike license.

That said, I’ve never before seen a label on a bag of sugar that proudly announced what it is NOT (beet sugar). I don’t know if this is a reaction to the current publicity about herbicide resistant sugar beets, or the old feelings about the, non-existent, differences between sugars refined from different plant sources taken to their logical extreme, but either way, in this christmas of all christmases, is not the time to be kicking beet farmers when they are down. (more…)