Ushering Science through the Media

I joined other scientist-communicators to talk about science in the media

I joined other scientist-communicators to talk about science in the media

 After four long days at a conference, all you want to do is board a flight home, crawl into bed, and try to forget how your boss saw you dancing at the open-bar party. But on July 30, 2015, a dedicated group of scientists and communicators rallied at the end of Plant Biology 2015 conference in Minneapolis, MN, for the Standing Up for Science Media Workshop on science and public engagement hosted by Sense About Science USA.

As the 2015 ASPB-sponsored AAAS Mass Media Fellow, I was invited to participate in the workshop and talk about why and how I began pursuing opportunities in science communication. And I eagerly joined my colleagues in discussing ways early-career scientists can improve how science weaves its way into the media.

The media workshop was divided into three sessions, with a corresponding panel of scientists, journalists, and scientist-communicators.

To start, Douglas Cook, a professor at University of California, Davis, made it clear that scientists should be firm about combatting myths and speaking forcefully for evidence-based action. “Science is not democracy,” he said, no matter what the polls say. For effective communication, facts and data are insufficient—people find their own version of the truth. Instead, Cook suggested, look for the values people hold, and see if your work can fulfill those values.

Coming at the issue of how to engage with the public from a different perspective, Sally Mackenzie, a professor at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln and president-elect of ASPB, felt that a coordinated, repeated message could break through even to opponents of some scientific advance, such as genetically modified (GM) foods.  “Some level of activism is our responsibility,” she said, dispensing with the notion that scientists should remain disinterested observers from their labs.

During the question and discussion period of the session, we discussed the labor force of science communication: should it be advanced by scientists who add on communication, or by dedicated communicators with scientific training? Do you need a Ph.D., or is a Bachelor’s degree sufficient? Do you need to study science at all?

The issue we kept coming back to is whose responsibility is communicating science? In academia, science communication is usually left as an extracurricular activity for overworked professors. That will never compete with efforts made by organizations that are committed to advocacy that goes against science and evidence. For instance, as someone noted Greenpeace—a vocal opponent of GM foods—spends $185 million a year on communication alone [The figure was closer to $211 million in 2013].

And with that, it was time for lunch and group work on what the media gets right and wrong when covering science, which led to the second session for the day. In the journalist panel we heard from Emily Sohn, a freelancer and contributor to the Science Writer’s Handbook, and Elizabeth Dunbar of Minnesota Public Radio.

To a room filled mostly with scientists, Sohn described how she finds stories, and how scientists can help her get their research to the public. If you are responsive to emails and phone calls from journalists and give clear, concise answers to questions, you might just end up as one of her “Super Sources” – someone she returns to time and again. And though Cook and Mackenzie, as well as several other scientists in the audience, felt that they had “been burned” by sloppy journalism, Sohn tried to make clear that she was on their team: “We’re all trying to get it right,” she said.

Dunbar, who had stumbled into science journalism from a general assignment background, freely admitted that in radio—where four minutes is a lifetime—she has learned that to communicate effectively she needs to cut all but the most basic scientific concepts. “I try to teach my audience something about science,” she said, and then explain just a fraction of the hot new research.

At the end of the panel discussion, the audience was given a chance to pitch their own work to the journalists to see how well they could capture attention for a possible story. In one instance, Sohn and Dunbar helped Don Gibson, a Ph.D. student at University of California, Davis, plan his pitch to journalists on his campaign to put Barbara McClintock on the ten-dollar bill. Their advice: Give a positive message, and make the main point—it’s time to put a female scientist on currency—pop out right away.

And then it was finally time for the last panel, where I joined Karl Haro von Mogel of Biology Fortified; Natalie Henkaus of the Boyce Thompson Institute (which supported the workshop) and soon-to-be ASPB staff member; and Neda Afsarmanesh, Deputy Directory of SAS USA and the organizer of the Media Workshop. We all had scientific backgrounds and we were all in the process of or had already moved into full-time science communication positions.

Henkaus stressed the importance of collaborative communication efforts from the NSF’s Research Coordination Networks, ASPB’s National Plant Science Council, and Cornell’s Alliance for Science (another supporter of the day’s workshop). Von Hogel described how Biology Fortified began as a group blog and morphed into a forceful advocate for biotechnology—and purveyor of cute GMOs. And I got to tell what it’s like to jump straight from the lab into the newsroom, and the importance of funding for training in communication. As the final panel, we had the luxury of longer, casual conversations that conveniently morphed into hor d’oeuvres and drinks. Business cards were exchanged; dramatic reenactments of speeches were staged; theories of science communication were pored over and debated.

My takeaway from the day: Journalists and scientists have a lot in common. They both want to tell others about what they see in the world—what they know to be true—and they both want everyone to be as excited about the story they have to tell as they are.

[This post first appeared on the Sense About Science USA website]

Listening in on Plant Defenses

It’s enchanting to consider that classical music might help plants grow better, like something out of a fairy tale. A simple Google search shows that a lot of people are interested in it, from the throngs at Yahoo Answers to marijuana growers looking for an edge. Mythbusters tested it, with mixed results. Academic researchers have explored the effects of tones on plant growth, finding frequency-specific gene regulation and growth responses. But it remains unclear what evolutionary benefit sensitivity to sound could provide, and a solid understanding of what is sometimes called ‘plant bioacoustics’ eludes researchers.

In a widely-reported study released last year, two researchers over at the University of Missouri, Columbia tested the effects on plant defenses of the vibrations caused by a caterpillar chewing on a leaf. Although much of the reporting fell prey to the temptation to claim the plants “heard” the chewing and responded, the real answer is both more complicated and more interesting. I had the opportunity to attend a talk Drs. Appel and Cocroft gave at Washington University a few months ago where I learned more than I could have extracted from their paper, published in Oecologia, alone.

Sound waves are longitudinal. Insect vibrations are transverse

Dr. Cocroft studies insect communication, especially the ability of insects to find mates and prey by sensing the vibrations of other insects on a plant. Like sound, the information is encoded in vibrational waves passing through a substance. Instead of a pressure wave like sound that varies in the same direction of travel—a longitudinal wave—insect vibrations on plants are transverse waves, moving up and down like a wave on the ocean (see figure).

We could never hear these kinds of waves ourselves, but their frequency can be directly translated to sounds we can hear. Cocroft played a number of humming soundscapes recorded with a laser on a wild prairie—the result of hundreds or thousands of insects communicating silently on stalks of grass. A plant, Cocroft noted, is a great conductor for these vibrations, flexible yet strong. His field studies how insects benefit from communicating this way, but he joined forces with Appel to ask: Do plants respond to the vibrations of insect herbivores in an adaptive way?

One major defense that plants have against pests is producing noxious compounds to deter feeding. Appel and Cocroft hypothesized that Arabidopsis plants would produce more defense compounds if they were exposed to the vibrations of herbivorous insects before actually being attacked. This effect is called priming, and could help defend against a second wave of insect damage.

To test this, the researchers first used lasers to record the vibrations of caterpillars allowed to eat the leaves of Arabidopsis plants. To play the vibrations back to undamaged plants, Cocroft attached leaves to tiny pistons driven, essentially, by speakers, ones that could replicate the vibrations of an insect chewing. Then caterpillars were allowed to feed on either the leaf that was vibrated or another, untouched leaf.

Both vibrated and distant leaves responded more vigorously to caterpillar attack than leaves on untouched plants. The plants that were primed by recorded caterpillar vibrations produced more glucosinolates, or mustard oils, than those of unvibrated plants. This is evidence of an adaptive response to insect vibrations, but leaves open the possibility that any vibration encouraged plant defenses.

To see if the effect really was specific to the herbivorous caterpillars, Appel and Cocroft played back vibrations of harmless insects, wind, or caterpillars on different plants and again measured defense compounds—this time anthocyanins, responsible for the deep reds and purples of many plants. Only caterpillar vibrations could prime plants to increase their defense response to herbivory; wind and the neutral insects had no effect.

One important caveat: although the researchers looked for an effect of vibrations alone, they found none. Only vibrations plus actual insect feeding induced higher defenses; the plants were primed for future attack, but vibrations alone made no difference. Of course, a real insect is more than just its vibrations. Herbivore attack is a physical, chemical, and auditory assault, and plants likely respond to each stimulus in different ways.

But how are plants able to sense the vibrations of caterpillars, and even differentiate them from similar sounds in nature? It’s entirely unknown. A very good candidate is a diverse group of proteins bound together by their responsiveness to physical forces—mechanoreceptors. These proteins can signal within a cell in response to vibration or touch and are potentially behind the priming effect that Appel and Cocroft observed.

In fact, to test this, the Haswell lab is working with Appel and Cocroft to see if our favorite mechanosensitive ion channels are part of the vibrational-response pathway. I got to see Liz’s face pop up in the corner at the end of their presentation over on the medical campus as they told us that work was underway. We’ll just have to wait to find out.

[A version of this post first appeared on my lab's blog]

Beer in the Garden

As humans first started to settle down from nomadic hunter-gatherers into early agricultural societies, they took what must have been an exceedingly keen understanding of the diverse plants in their environment and applied that knowledge to the cultivation of crops. Instead of relying on the bounty provided by nature, these people began to select the most appealing and nutritious plants to work deliberately. In so doing, they actively produced brand new crops and developed an even deeper relationship with the plant world.

And here, at the very dawn of civilization, early agriculturalists took their growing understanding of plants, and perhaps a bit of serendipity, and developed something to rival agriculture itself—beer. Agriculture and brewing developed side-by-side because both required a deepening understanding of the plant world. Today, the increasingly popular hobbies of home gardening and homebrewing can bring us back to this early world thousands of years ago where an appreciation for and knowledge of the plant world translated into intoxicating, frothy, delicious brews.

This past Wednesday I was invited to give a presentation on the intersection between gardening and homebrewing at the wonderful, new(ish) Urban Chestnut bierhall in The Grove. I was invited by Gateway Greening, which runs a monthly seminar series called, appropriately, Pints ‘N’ Plants. Around fifty people came to learn and talk about the understanding of barley and hops that is required to make great beer, and the many plants we can grow right here in St. Louis to brew with.

Bread baking and brewing happened under the same 
roof in ancient Egypt. Photo by Keith Schengili-Roberts
Barley of course provides the essence of beer, the sugars that yeast ferment into alcohol and carbon dioxide. But barley kernels straight from the field are full of starch, a form of sugar inaccessible to yeast. To unlock this sugar, maltsters control the germination of barley seeds, the developmental program that converts starch into sugar for the young seedlings. Instead of letting the seed continue to produce a whole new barley plant, maltsters instead dry and roast the sweet malted barley to halt the process and caramelize the sugars.

Fermented malted barley is all that is needed to make an intoxicating beverage, but it will result in a cloyingly sweet, unpalatable beer. Hops, the aromatic female flowers from the hop plant, perform the job of balancing the saccharine barley with bitter hoppiness while flavoring the beer as well. Hops took over from a diverse array of local herbs, fruits, and other plants around a thousand years ago to become the exclusive flavoring of most beer.

These earlier brews—called gruits—also relied on a strong sense of the qualities of local flora to produce drinkable beer that would not poison the drinkers. Hops likely superseded these hundreds or thousands of other plants because of their ability to protect beer from bacterial infections so well, but they also make a damn fine beer. The dozens of different varieties of hops lend distinct flavors and aromas from dry and earthy to bright and citrusy, helping to recover the diversity in flavorings lost with the gruits.

As any would-be usurper of the Busch crown will tell you, beer only requires barley, hops, yeast, and water. However, the craft beer and homebrewing renaissance has helped rediscover the variety of beer flavorings that harken back to an earlier time when all manner of local plants found their way into the brew kettle. Here, gardeners and homebrewers can join together in search of homegrown, quality ale.

Any number of bizarre plants can find their way into homebrewed beer. I covered just a handful to consider and get started in my talk, some I have experience with and some I do not. By far the easiest to grow is cilantro, the herb flavoring a lot of Mexican dishes. Instead of the leaves, however, brewers seek the bright, citrusy seeds called coriander. They have a completely different taste and are used in a very popular style of beer called Belgian witbier. This is the style of Blue Moon and is a very refreshing beer brewed with wheat, bitter orange peel, and coriander. In fact, the witbier is light on hops and calls back to the gruits that were flavored with an array of herbs and spices. Cilantro is so easy to grow it will even reseed itself from year to year, reliably producing pods of brown, crunchy seeds in the summer. Only about five tablespoons are required with an equal weight of orange peel to flavor the beer, an amount easy to acquire from just a plant or two.

I also covered how to grow and brew with pumpkin, chili peppers(!), and potted citrus plants. Perhaps the best plant to get in the ground this spring, however, is hops! A perennial, fast-growing vine, hops do well in community spaces where they can spread out and grow stronger year-over-year, or in the backyard of an enthusiastic gardener-brewer who has enough space for a sturdy trellis. Each spring, homebrew supply stores sell chunks of hop rhizomes, a root-like structure that overwinters to produce vines the next season. This vegetative means of propagation ensures that gardeners get only the female plants and clones of their favorite variety. After growing up to thirty feet high and maturing at the end of summer, the hops are ready to be tossed in the brew kettle for truly homegrown brewing.
My former community garden, Block 1035. Hops growing
on the common space trellis in the background.

To combine gardening and brewing, with an eye for creativity and variety, is truly to travel back in time to eras when most beer was brewed at home alongside the baking of bread, and when a knowledge of local plants was required for making delicious brews. For a time it seemed we had lost both of these skillsets. But now with the ongoing popularity of home and community gardening and the rapid rise in homebrewing, we all have the opportunity to capture again that intrinsic link between the growing of plants and the brewing of beer. Prost!

[I relied heavily on The Drunken Botanist by Amy Stewart and The Complete Joy of Homebrewing 3rd ed. by Charlie Papazian]

Keeping Spuds Safe--And Humans Too

Fortunately, potatoes are never quite as toxic as the alien carrots
in the Looney Tunes "Invasion of the Bunny Snatchers" episode
A team of Japanese scientists has published research that may help both protect potatoes from serious diseases and safeguard humans from poisonous spuds. The researchers, led by Dr. Kazui Saito, were able to identify a gene critical for making the toxic alkaloid chemicals that potatoes produce to protect themselves from pests. Although commonly-eaten varieties contain safe, low levels of these alkaloids, they are also more susceptible to certain major diseases. To combat infections, breeders want to crossbreed these safe spuds with disease-resistant—but poisonous—wild potato species without increasing the levels of toxic alkaloids in the potatoes we eat. Dr. Saito’s group has discovered a way to largely disable the production of these chemicals, opening up safer avenues to breed strong, resistant potatoes that do not make people sick.

Although normally safe, potatoes are serious contenders for the most toxic vegetable in the American diet. Potatoes, tomatoes, and eggplants are all members of the nightshade family, which produces a group of chemicals called steroidal glycoalkaloids to defend against pests. In small amounts, these chemicals may cause an upset stomach, but extremely high doses can lead to dizziness, hallucinations, and even death.

Human domestication long ago selected for potatoes with low levels of these alkaloids. But domestication also produces crops that cannot defend themselves as well against diseases—in particular, our efforts to make potatoes safer, larger, and tastier have impaired the spud’s ability to protect itself against late blight disease, the most damaging potato infection. Late blight led to starvation in Ireland in the 1840s, and today accounts for billions of dollars in lost productivity worldwide.

Crop breeders routinely scout out hearty wild relatives of our foods, seeking to breed in traits like disease resistance. For potatoes, scientists must ensure that borrowing beneficial traits from wild varieties does not increase the levels of steroidal glycoalkaloids above a safe threshold. One way to limit this risk is to reduce the production of these alkaloids in potatoes before breeding programs even start.

So Dr. Saito’s group set out to understand how potatoes make these chemicals in order to control and limit their production. Steroidal glycoalkaloids primarily consist of a steroid backbone, which is made from cholesterol. As a result, the scientists searched for genes in the potato genome that resembled a human gene that helps synthesize cholesterol. Although humans, peas, and rice have only one copy of the gene, potatoes have two—SSR1 and SSR2.

Having two similar genes is often a sign that the two copies have evolved to specialize. While most plants use a single gene to make cholesterol and other important chemicals like hormones, Dr. Saito and his colleagues reasoned that potatoes might have divided those two tasks between the two SSR genes.

To test this, they put the genes into yeast that made the chemical precursors of either cholesterol or plant hormones and measured what chemicals each SSR gene produced. They found that while SSR1 efficiently produced plant hormones, SSR2 excelled at making cholesterol. This specialization means that disabling SSR2 would shut down cholesterol and steroidal glycoalkaloid production without affecting SSR1’s synthesis of important hormones.

Scientists can add snippets of a plant’s own gene to activate a natural viral defense mechanism—a kind of plant immune system—and impair the native gene’s function. When the Japanese researchers did this with SSR2, alkaloid levels plummeted to a tenth their normal level, while the plants themselves grew just fine, a sign that hormones still functioned properly.

Another technology, called genome editing, can produce permanent errors in a specific gene, turning it off completely. The researchers added an editing protein that disrupted SSR2 and found that the alkaloid levels again dropped to a fraction of their normal amount. The editing protein can be removed in the next generation. This leaves only the precise changes dialed in by the scientists and 100 percent potato DNA, unlike most crop genetic modifications that add DNA from other species.  

The ability to produce specific new changes with the potato’s own DNA may reduce widespread concerns about genetically modified crops, which, although shown to be safe, are rejected by a large number of consumers.  This would be good news for scientists looking for new tools to improve potatoes and other foods.  Late blight and other diseases are ongoing scourges and the expanded toolbox for safely combating them provided by Dr. Saito’s group may help keep the world’s fourth-largest crop on a level playing field with these infections while keeping spuds safe.

[This news story served as part of my application to the AAAS Mass Media Fellowship]

Pollen in the Windy City

The view from outside the lab

I went to Chicago to figure out how pollen senses the world around it.

My colleagues and I want to understand how plants sense and respond to mechanical force. One might think that we have this figured out for all kinds of creatures, but really we don’t. We kind of have no idea how animal nerves sense touch. We think we have a good idea of how hearing works, but we could end up being quite wrong.

In plants, we know even less. Plants are really sensitive to gravity, touch, and all kinds of forces, we just don’t have a good idea of how they really perceive them and change their behavior appropriately. One way to do this is to use an ion channel that opens and closes based on pressure: a mechanosensitive ion channel.

That’s how hearing works, converting air pressure into electricity through an ion channel. A pressure wave—sound—in air enters the ear and bends a molecular lever so that an ion channel opens. Instantly, charged particles can flow through the channel, millions of them every second, and zzzp this makes a little electrical pulse that our brains can decode into sound. That is a mechanosensitive ion channel at work, and there is one in pollen and we do not know why.

My plants packed into my car for the trip
(We always think of electrical impulses as the workings of nerves. The cool thing is, even without nerves, these signals can be interpreted by cells and used to change behavior. Ions also play a big role in controlling how water flows, and we think that is what might be happening in my pollen.)

My pollen has a protein that looks like a mechanosensitive ion channel, but we don’t really know if it functions like that. So, I went to Chicago to find out.

Dr. Paul Malchow has equipment we don’t, namely an electrode that is extremely sensitive and can distinguish between different ions. By using a putty that only lets individual ions through—hydrogen, calcium, chloride, or the like—the voltage that the electrode measures near a cell can be linked directly to the concentration of ions there. The tool I brought along was a mutant plant, one that’s missing our potential ion channel. So, if I can see a difference in the flow of ions near pollen grains with and without this channel, we’d have good evidence that this channel is functional and can control how ions flow around pollen.

An electrode measuring ions near pollen
Does that tell us how pollen senses the world around it? No, not exactly. It’s just a small piece of the puzzle that we rearrange and try to piece together every week. If the channel does work like we expect, then we can try to figure out what forces it responds to in pollen, why ion flow is so important. If it is a dud, then we have to think harder about why pollen has this imposter ion channel at all, and what exactly it’s doing, and whether that has anything to do with mechanical force. We just don’t know. I don’t even have the answer from the electrode data yet, that alone can be hard to interpret.  

That may sound unsatisfying. It can certainly be frustrating. But it’s never boring, because every week my mentor and I reconsider everything we think we know about our pollen, about the evolution of these channels, about what pollen needs to respond to in order to be successful. It’s a little arcane, but it’s just a tiny piece of the puzzle for figuring out how plants respond so elegantly to the world they inhabit, twisting and turning to find nutrients and light, avoiding herbivores and pests. Playing a part in painting this picture of how plants are themselves really is satisfying.

So I went to Chicago, largely ignoring this beautiful city to huddle in a cold laboratory watching videos of pollen being prodded with electrodes. Happily.

Climate Change and Midwest Agriculture

This year, farmers will collect a record harvest of corn and soybeans in the United States, according to the USDA. This is good news for a world increasingly concerned about both a growing population and the agricultural challenges produced by advancing climate change. Predictions by the United Nations put global population at around nine billion by 2050, with the possibility of this being the eventual stable resting point of human population due to decreasing fertility rates around the world. Global food production needs to increase substantially—around 70% according to the FAO— by 2050 in order to feed more mouths and increasingly affluent populations seeking more animal products. As a major breadbasket of the world, the Midwestern U.S. will play a significant role in meeting these demands.

As the capstone to the Workshop on Climate Change and Agriculture in the Midwest hosted by the International Center for Advanced Renewable Energy and Sustainability at Washington University, Professor David Lobell of Stanford University presented on his research into the impacts of climate change on agricultural production in the Midwest. 

Dr. Lobell had two themes: First, respect the problem. Although rising CO2 levels may improve photosynthetic efficiency to a degree, the global increase in temperature is a net drawback to productivity. Second, we can address the problem rationally. Knowing how crops will likely respond to these stresses can help scientists identify the traits that can help meet production requirements.

The most dramatic impact of temperature increases will be reduced relative humidity. As the air warms, it can hold more water. Yet without an increase in water vapor, the relative humidity will decrease significantly. For us humans, that will hopefully offset the effects of hotter summers; we curse humidity in the Midwestern August. However, plants are exceptionally susceptible to humidity, especially when flowering.

In a tie-in to my own research, pollen, which comes to a sort of equilibrium with its environment, is easily damaged if the air is too dry when the flower opens. As it happens now, corn typically flowers during the hottest weeks of the summer, leaving its pollen susceptible to decreasing humidity. Less water vapor in the air also means the plant will transpire much more, increasing the amount of water needed in the soil to keep the crop happy and productive.

How do we combat this inherent weakness? Perhaps plant biologists can identify traits, or contribute new genes, that make crops use water more efficiently and protect pollen from excessive desiccation. Intensive research is being done in these areas already.

One idea that Dr. Lobell put forward was new to me, but apparently not to some farmers in the Southern United States: double cropping. With the right climate, fields can be planted with wheat in the fall to harvest in the spring, with just enough time left over to harvest soybeans in the fall. Under these conditions, flowering occurs outside the hottest months, and yield can be protected from the extreme heat to an extent. In fact, as the climate warms, Midwestern states will acquire longer growing seasons that make this option available to more farmers. Although this strategy does not necessarily out-produce the incredibly abundant maize crop, it is an example of alternatives immediately available to farmers even without significant improvements in crop germplasm.

Other strategies for helping crops cope with increasing temperatures will likely involve infrastructure, such as how to provide plants with enough water without losing as much to the soil and evaporation. Smarter irrigation systems may help in this goal.

The bottom line from Dr. Lobell’s talk is that adapting already-productive areas like the United States Midwest to climate change will require multiple strategies, because the effects of a warming world are multiple. This will require the sustained efforts of plant scientists, engineers, and innovative farmers. I, for one, am hopeful about the future of agriculture. Us humans seem to do a decent job of getting ourselves out of a mess, even if it is at the last moment. Let’s hope that’s the case here.

March Garden Plans


Okay, so we're actually in the middle of a(nother) Winter Storm Warning. Albeit one that is, for once, quite a bit lighter than predicted.

But, nonetheless, it is March. And peeking over at my handy vegetable planting guide provided by Gateway Greening, I see lots of activity starting in March. Along with the rest of the country, I am anticipating the explosion of outdoor activities, and happiness, that the highly anticipated spring will bestow upon us. For me, that particularly means making things grow.

This year I expect I’ll have to tack a couple weeks onto the traditional planting dates because of the bitter cold. But that means that very soon, peas go in the ground. They can handle some snow and they hate the heat. With our luck, we’ll transition smoothly and quickly to some freak heat wave like we experienced two years ago. Time will tell.

Peas first. Then lettuces, and the cole crops like broccoli and cabbage. (Side note: I definitely used to think the term was “cold crops” because, you know, they liked the cold.) Beets and carrots. Radishes and turnips. I could be eating fresh salad in 45 days give or take. Just as important, I’ll be digging into fresh, if cold, soil in a couple weeks. There are few things better.

Unlike last year, I am not starting any seeds indoors. I don’t really have the room in my new apartment and I’m planning to move apartments again. The greenhouse at Washington University has traditionally had a seedling sale on Mother’s day and I am hoping to snag some vegetable seedlings there in May. With my move I may have two gardens going on simultaneously, if I am that much of a masochist. I am getting a jump on early spring planting in my current space. But I certainly hope to find another community garden or have access to a yard wherever I move to continue the warm summer crops.

Although maintaining two gardens in two different locations in the city is probably well beyond my organizational skills, it is a good opportunity to learn more about gardening more quickly than I otherwise would be able to. That is one frustrating thing about gardening, you only get one shot each year.

My other outlet will be helping the Bell Demonstration Garden on Saturdays. I started volunteering last summer and hope to do so again starting this spring. Yet another opportunity to learn from people who really know what they’re doing in the garden.

I’ll update on the garden throughout the season and I hope that documenting it will allow me to reflect on what does and does not work!

The Changing and Static Nature of GMO Coverage

Over the last couple of years, I have noticed two simultaneous trends about media coverage of GMOs. First, a larger proportion of GMO stories highlight and dispute popular myths surrounding GMOs. Second, the comments on these articles and reasons given to be skeptical or wary of GMOs have not appreciably changed.

A recent New York Times article covered a Hawaiian County Councilman’s decision over a vote to ban GMOs on the big island of Hawaii. Although it was oddly somewhat child-like in its presentation of the process (Claim A is brought up. Claim A is disputed. Claim B is considered. Claim B is disregarded…) the tone of the piece was clearly intended to highlight the value of scientific skepticism. That the councilman, Greggor Ilagan, voted against the ban because it was founded on specious arguments portrayed him as a free thinker among a populism-driven council. Naturally, his side lost and the ban was put into effect.

Many of the comments on the NYTimes article mirrored those of the supporters who attended the council hearings in Hawaii. A minority defend GMOs as safe and useful tools. The majority, however, assert their beliefs that GMOs harm their health or their environment.  Anti-GMO positions usually fall into a few categories: Concerns over the health and safety of eating GMOs. Skepticism of biotech companies (read: Monsanto). Ecological concerns. The benefits of alternative agricultural practices. I hope to spend time with each of these topics over the coming weeks and months. Most are blown out of proportion; many are unfounded. Some, however, do come down to personal stance and belief.

The recent changes in GMO coverage appear to stem from a desire by news organizations to avoid false balance. The standard journalistic practice of neutrally informing the public of both sides of an argument is only valid when there are two even sides. When consensus has yet to be reached. When opinions, morals, or ethics are at stake more than facts. The difficult part of covering GMOs as a topic is that this technology encompasses both broad scientific consensus about its safety and opinions about the proper use of GMOs in agriculture. (And that’s all before we get into misconceptions of the facts that influence people’s opinions.) It is difficult to adequately address these different aspects of the public debate surrounding GMOs because they really lie on different planes.

Plant scientists won’t rest easy until wishy-washy opinions stop influencing scientific policy. GMO skeptics won’t be satisfied as long as their opinions are tossed out even once the facts are agreed upon (which, by the way, rarely happens).

New technologies are messy. My view is that a technological advance is neutral. Our applications of a new technology can be positive or negative. We can split the atom and incinerate cities or fuel them. GMOs have been used fairly conservatively thus far and yet through a combination of pretty terrible PR from biotech companies, an anti-corporate mood throughout the country, and public skepticism driven partly by a false dichotomy between natural and artificial, they remain a pariah in the public eye. Hell, at the end of the day, some would-be opponents say it doesn't even matter. (But ssshhh, don’t tell the commenters that).

The debate surrounding GMOs has lately been described as the left’s own version of climate science denial. Sometimes I use that analogy when trying to drive home how one cannot rely on intuition when assessing a new technology. One has to seek out the facts. Certainly no political party is immune to anti-scientific bias and the progressive left has taken up anti-GMO stances for years now. There is no need to equate GMOs and climate change. But there are similarities in the process by which both global warming and agricultural GMOs are attacked. And process matters.

My own anecdotal contribution to this layman’s media coverage comes from Reddit. Reddit, popularly understood to be largely made up of young, white progressives from North America, has taken a rabid anti-GMO stance for years. (The voting system of Reddit allows one to determine which opinions are most popular, reddiquette be damned.) I've often joined these comment threads to defend the benefits of GMOs or point our popular misconceptions about the technology. Usually I am called out a shill for Monsanto. Lovely.

But over the last couple of years, the top comments have increasingly pointed out misconceptions, biases and untruths in the primary article. More reasonable discussions about the benefits and dangers of GMOs have, slowly, beaten out the vitriol. Perhaps the broader shifts in media coverage of GMOs are in fact slowly trickling through the internet and end up as slightly-more-nuanced discussions rather than ad hominem attacks. If only we could get On The Media to be as interested in this particular topic as they are in asserting that NPR isn't biased!

P.S. If Nathanael Johnson at Grist hadn't beaten me to it, a six month adventure of teasing apart the incredibly intricate issues surrounding GMOs would be right up my alley. I’m still catching up with the coverage, but what I've seen so far suggests it is well worth a read. Check it out.   


Indoor/Outdoor Gardening

Phew! This was a busy day in the garden and I've got a lot to share.

First, a belated update to Indoor Gardening. Now it's outdoors! Starting plants from seed was a resounding success. With the LED grow light setup in the laundry room, the seedlings did great. I just left the light on 24 hours a day and the plants that got the most light right under the fixtures grew quickly and strong. I was able to rotate out the strongest plants to south-facing windows and put the smaller seedlings directly under the lights to grow better.

The tomatoes in particular did really well under the lights and flourished in the window when they were repotted at about 5"-6" tall. I also had success with hot and sweet peppers, eggplant and cucumbers. My rosemary is growing very slowly, but then again I think that's just what rosemary does.

After trying to transplant some lettuces and broccoli when they were still too young, I opted instead to just sow seeds directly in the soil. My front garden became my area for all these cool-weather crops because I was far too lazy to walk over to the community garden plot to dig in the cold, wet soil. But these plants did great when sewn directly in soil and I've had my first big pile of lettuces for a delicious salad. Not surprisingly, I now have more leafy vegetables than I really want and I've tried to pawn off the lettuces to my downstairs neighbors. But it's really fulfilling to have the first harvest of the year behind me and I look forward to more the interesting vegetables of summer. I've got peas going in the front garden too which now have a couple flowers on them so they'll hopefully be producing in the near future.

We've had a pretty cool and very wet spring--the Mississippi is chronically flooding--and so even though it's several weeks past the last frost date of April 15 I haven't been brave enough to put in my warm weather crops until now. Today was a beautiful day for doing so though: warm but not hot, with some occasional cloud cover. I went over to the community plot I've rented for the summer and transplanted four tomato plants, three peppers and two eggplants while putting in some seed onions as well. Oh and a cucumber. I started the cucumber indoors although I don't think that's really necessary or even recommended. I'm not sure they survive transplanting very well, but they grow so quickly that if the transplantation doesn't work I can just sew some seeds soon.

What's really intriguing about tomatoes is that because they have evolved to vine over the ground, wherever the stem touches soil it grows new roots. So a strategy for developing a really strong tomato plant is to remove a few of the lower leaves and dig a short trench. You lay the tomato down in the trench and cover up a lot of the stem with soil, leaving just a few leaves at the top. The top will quickly orient to grow against gravity and the whole stem will turn into a new root structure that will give the aerial portions plenty of support and the ability to gather water and nutrients from a wider area. I haven't done it before, but I'm excited to see if it helps my tomatoes flourish in the summer.

Another strategy I look forward to implementing is to actively prune my tomatoes. If you've ever grown tomatoes then you know that it's so easy for them to get overgrown and even get so big they fall over. This is the problem in trying to pretend that a vine is an upright plant. But apparently an easy solution is just to prune them back, like a tree or a grapevine. Once the plant is established and tries to grow extra stems, you just pinch them off at the base. This puts more of the plant's energy into the remaining foliage and fruits to promote ripening and keep the plant from falling over under its own weight.

Hopefully my tomatoes and other warm-weather crops survive the transplanting process well enough. In truth, I should have more carefully hardened them off to survive cooler temperatures and the scorching sun. But they are so hardy right now and the weather is basically perfect that I think I'll be fine, especially as the tomatoes grow new roots.

That finished off all my indoor plants, so I've turned off the LEDs and I'll have to clean up the soggy, wet cardboard boxes that housed my plants for the last few months. I have some other plants I can start from seed--pole beans, more carrots, some herbs--but I think I'm done with the laundry room setup. It's really satisfying to finally get my plants in the ground after nurturing them for months indoors. I've only ever bought seedlings to transplant, but it seems my own plants are somehow stronger. The whole process definitely gives me a level of satisfaction I haven't known before in my gardening experience and I hope I can repeat it next year.

As a topic preview, today I hosted an outreach event at my community garden brining some plant scientists to talk about medicinal plants, domestication and GMOs. It was small, but largely successful and as always I've learned more about how to host such events in the future. That post will be up soon.