James and the Giant Corn Genetics: Studying the Source Code of Nature

January 4, 2010

GM crops on Greenwire

Filed under: Link Posts — James @ 8:55 pm

So apparently Paul Voosen wrote a five part series on genetically engineered crops? I’ve only read parts four and five which focus on Ed Buckler and the authors of Tomorrow’s Table respectively, but it seems like it might be worth tracking down the remainder of the series.

Congratulations to Ed, Pamela, and Raoul!

December 25, 2009

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

Filed under: Link Posts — James @ 2:52 pm

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.

December 14, 2009

You Think I’m Evil… What Next?

Filed under: Link Posts — Tags: , , , — James @ 11:18 am

I’m a public sector plant biologist. Your tax dollars at work for better or worse. But even I have had similar encounters to the one Janice so accurately describes in this post I was pointed to on twitter*:

I asked what she does and she says mostly volunteer work now.  She asks me and I reply that I work in the cotton business for a company that improves seeds… its Monsanto & the seeds are called Deltapine.

There was an audible gasp, and her eyes opened so much it startled me. She said “Monsanto is evil.” This is where the stress came in. I have read this before, but the fact that I was hearing it today since I’d been making a lot of effort to stay positive seemed like a test. Really. And to have the person, who I’ve pleasantly visited with for five minutes, looking right at me like I’m evil,having just said that heard I am part of Monsanto. It was certainly a test…a test of the Janice-response system.

Seriously, how often do you call someone evil & mean it? She was dead serious.

But the moral of this post isn’t that it sucks to be a plant biologist, it’s that, as painful as it is to have someone look to in the face, and call you evil, there’s still the chance for engagement. At this point I probably would have either changed the subject or put in my iPhone earbuds and hoped the flight would be over soon, but Janice didn’t get mad, didn’t drop the subject, and it sounds like she actually managed to get the other woman to reconsider her categorical opposition to biotechnology. I highly recommend reading her whole post.

*Thanks @MikeHowie and @cornguy

December 11, 2009


Filed under: evolution,Genetics,Link Posts — James @ 7:48 pm

It was a very long day at work and I have nothing interesting to tell you.

Go check out MAT Kinase and John Hawks‘s posts on how human evolution has been driven by the dietary changes of our relatively recent ancestors, farmers and herders rather than hunter-gatherers. (At least in many cases, it’s quite possible someone reading this blog can trace their ancestry back to human populations that remained hunter-gatherers into the 20th century.)

December 8, 2009

BBC Frontiers on Genetically Engineered Crops

Filed under: Feeding the world,Link Posts,Politics — James @ 1:28 am

Without realizing it I’d begun to fall into the trap of thinking of European positions on genetically engineered plants mostly as they impact countries in the developing world (European donors funding Greenpeace activity in Thailand, or the threat of losing access to European markets being used to discourage the use of genetically engineered crops in Africa), so it was great to stumble across this segment on BBC Frontiers and be forcefully reminded that the position of the EU (and of it’s member nations) is not set in stone and continues to be the subject of strong debate.

The segment is available streaming from the BBC’s website and it’s a fascinating listen. (Budget ~25 minutes, the stream is a little longer, but the end is just bookkeeping and transitioning to the next show.)

If you don’t have the time to listen to the whole thing (and you really should), here are a couple of key quotes: (more…)

December 6, 2009

Sunday Links 12/6

Filed under: Link Posts — Tags: , , — James @ 12:59 pm

MAT Kinase tells the story of some of a cool, weird, (and potentially deadly) fruit created using nothing but conventional breeding techniques in Plumalmodterine.

Steve Savage has the conversation with a Greenpeace campaigner I’ve always wanted to have with the people who can constantly be found soliciting money for similar organizations on my walk to work.

Steve’s post reminded me of this awesome (and freely available article) from Plant Physiology: Forbidden Fruit: Transgenic Papaya in Thailand* which is highly recommended reading for anyone interested in genetic engineering, the developing world, and the role of NGOs like Greenpeace.

I’m considering making this a regular feature. I often read cool articles, but it feels weird to put up a post that just says “go read this” when I don’t have anything of my own to add. Anyway, the test of whether this will be a feature or a fluke will be if I remember to post another one in a week.

*I know I’d previously mentioned this in my post on virus-resistant papayas, but I think there are at least several new readers since then and I’ve been dismayed to find out how little publicity this article seems to have received when it first came out.

November 26, 2009

The Cost of the Turkey Genome

Filed under: Genetics,Link Posts — Tags: , , — James @ 6:52 pm

Just to give you a sense of how fast technology is advancing:

Sequencing the maize genome took four years and 30 million dollars. Today Virginia Tech announced the University of Minnesota and themselves had received a $908,000 grant to sequence the Turkey genome in two years. I don’t know how big or complex the turkey genome is, but the idea of sequencing a whole new species for less than a million dollars is still pretty cool.

h/t to 538 they’ve got more cool turkey statistics over there.

Happy Thanksgiving!

Filed under: food,Link Posts,Site Business — Tags: , — James @ 9:59 am

In recognitions of the huge feasts many of us are or soon will be sitting down to, let us take a moment to think about the very fact that vast range of different foods human beings can eat might be the very reason we out competed other hominids (specifically neaderthals) with more specialized diets. Our ability and willingness to eat almost anything may have been the crucial edge we needed.

Picture a small, warm valley in Northern Europe that supported enough deer, wild cattle and sheep to support a band of neanderthals. If they reproduced too much (or another band of neanderthals moved in), the now-unsustainable harvest of prey would force them to disperse to better hunting grounds, and in time, with relaxed predation, the prey would likely repopulate the valley.

But if a band of humans moved in, they may not only help over-harvest the big game, but also refuse to leave when the game ran out. Maybe there’s still good year-round living to be made on rabbits, seeds, fish, grubs and berries. And while they’re out gathering, they’d certainly help themselves to any of the (now rare) big game that they came across.

Read more in MAT Kinase’s exciting post on the subject over at The Scientist Gardener.

In addition to the many other things I am grateful for, from my amazing family, to being able to work on such interesting science surrounded by such wonderful fellow researchers, and all the many other things that aren’t of any interest if you don’t know me personally, I am grateful for a digestive system that can handle fungus and the milk produced by other species to feed their own young, and insects, and grains, and fruits, and vegetables (including some vegetables that are just glorified leaves), and, of course, delicious turkey.

Edit: I’m also very thankful for readers of this site, and the fellow authors I’ve discovered through my writing here, too numerous to name. It’s good to know I’m not alone in my attempt to bring the public and science back together.

Edit 2: I also just realized this is my 250th post in 22 months writing on this site!

November 24, 2009

Summary of the Coverage of the Maize Genome here at J+TGC

Filed under: Genetics,Link Posts,Site Business — Tags: , , — James @ 10:47 am

Summarizing a couple of Virginia Walbot’s ten reasons you should care about the maize genome

Hear one of the lead authors of the maize genome paper explain how and why it was done in under four minutes.

Reviewing the quality of the genome sequence itself.

We can already see research made possible by the maize genome.

How maize fits in the family tree of grasses/grains

Read about how the maize genome project is helping researchers find more genes selected for during the domestication of maize.

Plants have more genes than people, why is this still news

Other people on the web react to the maize genome (also why different colors of corn are not different species)

November 23, 2009

Transmitting DNA sequences to the stars

Filed under: Link Posts,Plants — Tags: , , — James @ 1:58 am

It’s a gloriously non-sensical project. To mark the 35th anniversary of the Drake-Sagan transmission, a guy named Joe Davis flew down to Puerto Rico and used the Arecibo radio telescope* to transmit the genetic sequence that encodes for the protein rubisco** to three nearby stars. While covering some awesomeness (using the most powerful radio transmitter on the planet to broadcast signals into space from an iPhone), and some criticisms (what is a DNA sequence going to mean to extra terrestrial life that almost certainly won’t contain DNA and absolutely wouldn’t use the same sequences to encode for the same amino acids), the author left one key question unanswered. Which plant’s rubisco sequence was shouted out to the cosmos?

Fortunately he posted the sequence here, and using BLAST it was easy to identify the gene as belonging to Nicotiana tabacum. The tobacco plant. Seriously? The gene that encodes for the rubisco protein is one of the more widely sequenced plant genes out there, as differences in the sequence are often used to study the relatedness of different plant species. He could pick from the sequences of organisms ranging from coconut to corn, from ferns to redwoods and the most worthy plant that came to mind was tobacco?

Oh well.

*Another awesome bit of science operated by Cornell

**Rubisco is the plant protein that plants use to grab CO2 molecules out of the air to turn into sugars. Providing us with both clean air and food to eat. It’s actually not very good at its job, which is why plants have to make so much of it. So much, in fact, that it truly is the single most abundant protein on the planet.

C4 plants like corn, sorghum, and sugar cane have actually redesigned their leaves and the way they do photosynthesis to get around the failings of rubisco.

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