International Seeds of Mystery

By Sophie Harrington

The path to new varieties of hybrid seeds created by companies such as Monsanto and Pioneer is long and expensive. They come from crosses between lines of inbred seeds, each line of which can cost between 30 and 40 million USD and take up to 8 years to develop. These seeds are closely guarded by the companies, with concerns that individuals or other companies might attempt to obtain varieties of inbred seed that they could then cross with a separate inbred, creating their own hybrid line. But until recently international espionage hadn’t been considered.

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Are spies stealing our seeds? (Credit Tony Fischer Photography)

As reported in the New York Times, various Chinese nationals are suspected of returning inbred rice seeds to crop researchers in mainland China. Mo Hailong is one of the few who has been charged with stealing trade secrets. Mr. Mo was caught in 2011 digging up seeds in a DuPont research farm, from which he fled in true super-spy style in a getaway car. The F.B.I had Mr. Mo under surveillance until his arrest last December.

While the implication of China in a case of so-called “economic espionage” is in and of itself not particularly surprising, the reach into agriculture is unprecedented. But perhaps this, too, is to be expected. Growing middle class populations have resulted in a sharp increase in demand for meat, putting pressure on the supply of corn, often diverted for use as animal feed rather than as food. In the US requirements for ethanol in fuel have also served to drive up the prices of the crop. Obtaining a new line of more virile and fit crops, such as corn, could be crucial in allowing an increase in production.

Yet the strict control that companies such as Monsanto and DuPont have maintained over their proprietary seeds has been a barrier to the easy dissemination of such traits. Corn yields per plant in China haven’t changed significantly in many years, while it’s been over 10 years since the last major Chinese hybrid strain was developed. Stealing the inbred lines developed by American corporations appears to be much quicker and more effective when you aren’t caught. It’s unlikely that this will be the last we hear of agricultural espionage.

More details on the case can be found here

Christianity and GMOs: An Interview with CICCU (2)

Nick Dinan talks to James Roberts from the Cambridge Inter-Collegiate Christian Union about the role of Genetically Modified Organisms in a Christian world view.

Read Part 1 of the interview here.

Nick Dinan: With regard to ‘not rushing things’, would it be right to frame your opinion as one that believes global issues such as global hunger are important, but if we want solutions we should take the slow route despite the urgency of these problems?

James Roberts: We could do a whole load of things other than GM crops to solve world hunger, such as better distributing the food we’ve got. There are perfectly adequate stopgap measures while we think about GM crops and evaluate them – whilst we make 100% sure that they’re all right. Doing that is a much better option than simply going ‘oh, GM crops are the answer here’ – it might not be.

ND: In May 2013 Monsanto sued, and won $85,000 from, a 75-year-old farmer for sowing the next generation seeds of the seeds that they had sold. Do you think there’s a major concern with the exploitation of GM crops by larger companies?

JR: You have situations where whole groups of people are dependent on the seeds of a genetically modified crop. Seeds are marked up in price and aren’t affordable, and the farmers end up in a worse position than before. We need to consider how to ensure that this technology isn’t manipulated simply for profit by big business. We need to think about how to regulate that.

ND: I assume that most people in the Christian community would agree with this?

JR: The Christian community I can say generally agrees on this, and I think this applies to a wider range of issues than GM crops as well; the issue of justice is one that hopefully would be close to home.

ND: So the ‘Christian value’ would be to help people, but in a way that conforms to what you’re taught in the Bible?

JR: I would say that the Christian moral standpoint should come from the Bible. That has to be our first authority on everything. So how we think through these issues should ultimately derive its reasoning back from the Bible.

ND: And finally – you said that your opinion came from studying biology in school, so it obviously was the result of some educational exposure. Do you think that members of the Christian community could do a lot more in educating themselves on the biology of GM crops before making an opinion?

JR: We need to make decisions based on the facts, based on what we’re presented with through the education system. I don’t think that’s our responsibility; the government has to give us the facts. Then, what we do with them has to conform with our reading of scripture. If someone’s honest view is that tampering with God’s creation is morally wrong, then I think no matter the biology that’s the conclusion they have to come to. However, if someone from scripture like myself has come to the conclusion that tampering with God’s work is not the problem, then the next step down in your reasoning has to be whether or not the biology says it’s the right thing to be doing. Have we got a full enough grasp of how it works to be able to do it in a way that isn’t going to cause damage? Can we do it as responsible stewards? If it’s yes to that, then I think the conclusion that we should come to is ‘yes, it’s fine’.

Christianity and GMOs: An Interview with CICCU

By Nick Dinan

As a scientist and atheist, a perspective of genetically modified (GM) crops rooted in religion is one that is naturally foreign to me. I sat down with James Roberts, representing the Cambridge Inter-Collegiate Christian Union (CICCU), to explore the moral conflicts of GM foods – are they rebelling against scripture or are they acceptable within the standards of the Bible?

Nick Dinan: What are your personal views on GM crops? 

James Roberts: Personally, I think they’re a bad idea, but not from a Christian perspective. I don’t think that the technology is good enough to ensure that something bad doesn’t happen.

ND: Do you think that your particular views are representative of the Christian church, or at least the Christian Society within Cambridge?

JR: I think there’s a broad spectrum of viewpoints. There’ll certainly be some people who are against it, because quite stereotypically you’re ‘playing God’. However I don’t particularly think it’s an issue. The Bible in Genesis calls for us to be stewards of the world, care for God’s creation and to look after it under his ultimate rule. So I don’t think GM crops are particularly different from what we’ve been doing for thousands of years through selective breeding – it’s just skipping out a couple of steps.

ND: You point out that we help the plants skip a couple of steps ahead. Technology is progressing to the stage where we may take a few steps further than that. Where do you think the line will be drawn for GM crops to still fall under God’s natural order of things?

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Credit leyink

JR: It’s a very grey area. It depends what you’re trying to do and what you’re trying to achieve. If there is some kind of beneficial goal at the end then I think that probably justifies what you’re doing. For example, if you’re going to end up with a plant that produces something beneficial, you can probably justify it. However, if you’re just fiddling around with genes out of curiosity then that’s not such a great thing.

ND: Developing these techniques to eventually reach a positive goal is often the result of ‘fiddling around’ without knowledge of what future benefits may be. In that respect, how would you distinguish between fiddling around and aiming towards a positive goal?

JR: It comes down to your motivations – are you being a good steward? Are you keeping in mind the risks and what could potentially go wrong? Are you taking precautions? Basically, we want good scientific practice. Thinking through those things is what differentiates between carelessness and actually doing something that can benefit the scientific community and humanity.

ND: From your own perspective, do you believe that someone who disagrees with GM foods for religious reasons should then logically be against gene therapy in humans?

JR: I think the underlying question is that there’s a difference between humanity and the rest of creation; humanity is made under God’s image as a special creation. However gene therapy and GM crops seems to me almost as one in the same thing, you just need to be more careful with humans. I don’t think that if you’ve decided to be against GM crops you could say that gene therapy is okay, but I’d add a pinch of salt to that as I don’t know the ins and outs of gene therapy.

ND: So in terms of a being a steward to these resources, surely we should be doing the best to help those around us. For example, golden rice provides a precursor to vitamin A, and vitamin A deficiency is something that kills 675,000 children a year – GM crops can really help people. Is there a moral dichotomy between tampering with God’s work and helping these people?

JR: So I think being a good steward involves not only making the best use of resources, but also being responsible with what we’re using. If the risks involved in creating golden rice were too great, then no matter what the potential gain of the end goal is, it’s not right. The ends don’t justify the means if your means are full of hazards. But I don’t think that you’re tampering with God’s creation if you’re manipulating crops.

ND: I know that you’re very much focused on the risks of GM food, but putting yourself in the shoes of a someone who is against GM crops from a Christian moral context, is there a conflict between the potential gains of GM crops and the fact that GM crops could be a moral injustice?

JR: I think if their conscience is telling them that ‘to do this would be to go against God’s rule’, then for them to sanction it is wrong no matter what the potential gain is. If they see it as rebelling against God, then it is not something they should do.

ND: I want to return to your concerns that you mentioned in your first answer about the risks of accidentally putting toxins in. A wheat crop undergoing testing in the UK has been engineered for Aphid resistance using naturally occurring, non-toxic proteins existing in the food chain. Toxins are therefore highly regulated and the risk is low. Do you think that despite the chance of toxicity being very small, we shouldn’t support GM foods?

JR: I think it’s something you’d need to think very carefully through. You need to think about the long term as you could have something that could build up in the ecosystem and be toxic at higher concentrations. It’s just about caution, really. I think we should be against GM crops as a whole as it’s just not something we should rush into. We need to make sure we’ve thought of all the hazards and risks. If it’s fine, then why not, but we always need to bear in mind that we don’t think about these things properly a lot of the time. The scientific process is riddled with potential biases and errors and things that we don’t spot like thalidomide and that kind of thing. We often have an under appreciation of the hazards involved

Part 2 of this interview will appear on the 4th of February 

The Little Fungus that Could

By Nathan Smith

Deep in the dark depths of fungal taxonomy there lies a phyla known as the Glomeromycota. Members of this phyla are all obligate symbiotes, unable to support themselves independently and requiring a photosynthetic partner to provide organic carbon to them in return for gifts of phosphorous and nitrogen. For all bar one, this photosynthetic partner is a terrestrial plant; the symbiosis being better known as Arbuscular Mycorrhization and which upwards of 80% of angiosperms (flowering plants) are capable of engaging in.

The exception to this Golden Rule of the Phyla? A species known as Geosiphon pyriformis which instead forms a relationship with the cyanobacteria, specifically the species Nostoc punctiforme.

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Geosiphon:Nostoc symbiosis; Geosiphon spores inset
(credit Schuessler Lab)

The Geosiphon:Nostoc symbiosis appears to be unique in nature as the only example of an endosymbiosis between a fungus and a bacteria.  Adding to its mystery, it has so far been reported to have been found only 6 times in the wild in a small region of eastern Germany and Austria.

In contrast to Arbuscular Mycorrhization, where the fungal partner invades the cells of the plant to create an exchange interface, the cyanobacteria are taken in by the fungi, surrounding them with a unicellular structure known as a ‘bladder’ that can grow up to 2mm in length.

The exchange of nutrients is also different than in Arbuscular Mycorrhization. With the exception of nitrogen and carbon, all of the cyanobacteria’s nutritional needs must be met by the fungus. In return, the fungus receives organic carbon and nitrogen.

It is possible that Geosiphon:Nostoc symbiosis represents an important step in fungi being able to form symbiotic relationships with plants; it’s also possible that the Geosiphon:Nostoc developed out of the wider spread Arbuscular Mycorrhiza symbioses.

Either way it’s an interesting story of one fungus breaking the mould.

Plants in science fiction and fantasy

By Lilian Halstead

When it comes to plants in real life, many people seem to think that because they don’t move, they can’t be very interesting. This is hardly the case in science fiction, where plants (and plant-animal hybrids) are much more active, dangerous things. If you think of plants in science fiction the thing you are mostly likely to come up with first would be the triffids, which first appear in The Day of the Triffids. These intelligent flowering plants originally kept for their oil escape and take over, killing with a venomous sting and wondering around on three stumpy legs. Another well known dangerous plant is Audrey II from the Little Shop of Horrors, which although it remains rooted in place manages to persuade Seymour to bring it the flesh it needs to grow.

These man eaters are by no means the first though— there is a long history of claims of trees that eat people during the exploration of Africa by the Europeans, although they tended to be depicted as masses of tentacle vines which would lash out and grab the unwary, much like the bloodoak and tarryvine in the Edge Chronicles. Some aspects of their design are echoed in the more benign whomping willow in Harry Potter, which is more grumpy than hungry. Many of the plants in the Harry Potter books are drawn from folklore: the devil’s snare was a bloodsucking vine believed to grow in central America, while the mandrake is a real plant which has fleshy roots that was said to scream to kill those who uprooted it.

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Some Arthurian legends say Merlin was turned into an Oak tree by Niviane
(Credit Rob Young)

Another common theme is for plants to resemble people. In Invasion of the Body Snatchers people are gradually replaced by replicas grown in pods. But others are more friendly, one of the main characters in Farscape is a humanoid plant, although it’s not possible to tell from looking at her. Ents are more typically what you’d expect from plant people, and the Cactacae in the world of Bas-Lag are also more plantlike, having wooden bones and being covered in spines. In mythology there were the dryads, tree spirits in humanoid form, although in myths people also had a habit of turning into trees. In some versions of the Arthurian legends Merlin suffers this fate, doomed to live as an oak by the actions of Niviane.

As well as plant people, plant-animal hybrids tend to spring up all over the place. The Sarlacc from Star Wars is one of these, some expanded universe depictions describe it as having roots as well as tentacles and teeth. The best hybrid though has to be the vegetable lamb of Tartary, which is exactly what it sounds like—a plant shaped like a sheep attached to the ground by an umbilical cord-like stalk.

Despite all these plant monsters and hybrids, the most common use of plants is as a MacGuffin: they are variously able to cure diseases, kill the invincible monsters, lift curses and even, in some folk tales, open locked doors. So while animals may get most of the glory in most of science fiction and fantasy, there is also no shortage of plants.

Invisible forests; and how marine dwelling microorganisms really rule the waves!

By Charlie Whittaker

For sure, the abundance of terrestrial plants we share our planet with are weird and wonderful in equal measure, but why should they get all the glory when there’s an equally as important component to the biomass on Earth? I’m of course talking about the much maligned, often overlooked, and most definitely misunderstood microscopic creatures that inhabit the murky depths of our oceans!

The marine environment is by far the planet’s largest habitat. Covering over 70% of the land area, it contains a huge diversity of organisms, co-existing in a harmonious, yet fragile, balance. Underpinning all the life that the oceans sustain are photosynthetic organisms. Tiny, often microscopic and unicellular, these organisms are responsible for roughly half of all the primary productivity of the planet. Their ability to capture sunlight and use it to synthesise new organic compounds provides the energy for the diversity of marine life found in the ocean. They are, for want of a better analogy, the oceans’ invisible forest.

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These primary producers are exceptionally diverse, ranging from tiny photosynthetic bacteria that hitch a ride on the tiny particulate matter found in seawater, to the phytoplankton. These represent a hugely diverse group of unicellular organisms. Contained within this group are the diatoms, which enclose their cell in a glass box made out of silica, as well as the dinoflagellates, that tend to employ semi-opaque plates of cellulose to separate themselves from the external environment. And then who could forget the coccolithophores? Unicellular like their other phytoplankton counterparts, these microorganisms cover themselves with ornamented plates called coccoliths made out of calcium carbonate.

So why does any of this matter?

80 million tonnes of marine seafood are caught globally each year. Seafood forms a common constituent of diets worldwide and provides more than 1.5 billion people with at least 15% of their protein requirements. The entirety of this marine life, whether directly (animals that feed on the producers themselves) or indirectly (in the case of organisms several trophic levels above the primary producers), relies upon the productivity and photosynthesis these organisms are carrying out.

They also represent an important carbon sink. The ocean plays a huge role in mopping up and buffering CO2 released into the atmosphere: and a significant proportion of the ability to do this stems from the simply huge amount of photosynthetically capable biomass present.

Okay, that’s fine and dandy then?

Not quite. Unfortunately things are getting progressively less peachy. Climate change poses a serious issue to the future productivity of the oceans and marine life. Changes to the oceanic average temperature has implications ranging from alterations to the vertical stratification of the water column (important in mixing, thereby ensuring all the phytoplankton receive all the nutrients they need) to impacting the chemical reactions responsible for the productivity of the primary producers. Whilst of course, the response to rising sea temperatures will not be the same globally (a paper recently published in nature showed that “Some phytoplankton like it hot” and that warming oceans may increase productivity in some areas) there are important marine areas of human concern that are set to suffer substantially: the Atlantic Cod population has plummeted in number in recent years. Partly this has been driven by overfishing, but it was also shown this was due to rising temperatures. The alteration modified and impacted the plankton ecosystem in such a way that it reduced the survival rates of young cod, and thereby facilitated the population’s rapid decline.

They may be invisible, but the effects of these tiny photosynthetic powerhouses are quite the opposite. And unless something is done soon, they may be at the forefront of drastic alterations to our current marine system.

Further reading:

On the effect of increased temperatures on cod and phytoplankton populations.

On the propensity some phytoplankton show for warmer temperatures.

Marine Biology: A Very Short Introduction.

You’ve got the wrong (fun)guy!

by Nathan Smith

If you were presented with a plant and a fungus and asked to pick the parasite, chances are you’d pick the fungus. Whilst this is often the case, there are significant and widespread cases of the relationship being the other way around. Enter Orchids.

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Common Spotted Orchid

Orchids are family of plants distinct in physical appearance and are renowned for their sweet scent and aesthetic beauty, despite the fact they more closely related to rice than they are to roses. Their seeds contain rather small reserves of nutrients and they are unable to photosynthesise immediately after germination, instead going through an achlorophyllic stage; in fact some orchids are not capable of photosynthesis during their lifespan. Usually small reserves and an initial inability to photosynthesise would be considered a bad strategy for a plant, but Orchids are still thriving and there is a good reason why.

Throughout their non-photosynthesising stage, and indeed throughout their entire existence, they are the dominant partners in what can best be described as an uneven symbiotic relationship with a fungal partner.  In fact, a fungal partner is required by the orchid for them to germinate ‘in the wild’. Orchids can be germinated in sterile conditions; however this requires exposure to the ‘fungal sugar’ trehalose.  So what is the trade between the orchid and the fungus?  The fungus supplies the plant with organic carbon, a source of nitrogen, phosphorous, and other minerals and nutrients, and in return, gets… well, not much really. This uneven relationship continues once the plant gains the ability to photosynthesise and there is little evidence that the fungus gains a significant amount of reduced carbon from its photosynthetic symbiont. The fact that the fungus enters into a symbiosis with the plant in the first place, and continues this relationship throughout the plant’s life, suggests the fungus gains something from the relationship or that the plant emits a strong attractant, however there is little to no evidence for this and so these hypothesises remain little more than speculation.

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Tway-blade Orchid

What about the orchids that never photosynthesise? These plants, for instance the Bird’s-nest Orchid, have a habit of forming symbioses with fungi that also associate with tree roots. This allows them to use the fungus like a straw and indirectly parasitise what they need from the unsuspecting trees. Clever stuff.

Orchids are beautiful and interesting plants and deserve to be admired, but it doesn’t mean it’s the good guy. Next time spare a thought for the poor little fungus.

Photography by Leanne Massie