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Recently in plant responses to the environment Category

EDIT (11 Feb): it seems that the writer of the 'we're eating poison' piece has decided to remove that page from their site. Which I guess is an improvement over the original. However, the good people over at Metabunk provided some useful links to the past, and this site appears to be the source used for the 'poison' post.

No sooner have I written a post about the synergy between FB and blogging then it happens again :) Again, hat-tip to Yvette d'Entremont, who posted a link to an article purporting to tell consumers how to distinguish between GM & 'regular' tomatoes. The writer of that article certainly wears their heart on their sleeve - just look at the title: "We're Eating A Poison!" And they are wrong, wrong, wrong. Even the image at the top of their article is misleading. 

I did leave a polite comment requesting evidence to support their claims. It appears that the owner of the page didn't like it. I am shocked! Shocked, I say!

Anyway. The main reason that they are wrong is that ...


... currently there aren't any genetically-engineered tomatoes on the market. 

There used to be one, the "Flavr Savr", which came out with much fanfare in 1994. It had been modified to enhance its shelf life, but apparently was not a commercial success and was withdrawn in 1997. To date, nothing has replaced it, although there's apparently quite a bit of research still going on into e.g. delayed ripening and resistance to pests and environmental stressors.

At this point it's probably worth noting that the tomatoes we grow (or buy) & eat are themselves the result of centuries of modification by conventional selective breeding - and also techniques such as mutagenesis, which are not exactly 'natural'. Nor are they subject to the same controls and rigorous testing required of any GM organism or product, despite the fact that mutagenesis creates much larger genetic changes than today's very precise techniques for genetic engineering (think CRISPR). And yet conventional breeding methods can also cause problems: they led to the withdrawal of some potato varieties in the US & Sweden, because the spuds thus produced contained dangerously high levels of the poisonous compound alpha-solanine.

Then there's that image. 

They'd obviously like us to think that one - perhaps the lushly rich red one to the left? - is natural/organic, and the other, a GMOA. Especially when they ask, "can you tell the difference between a regular tomato and a genetically modified one?" But, as we know, all commercially-available tomatoes are produced by conventional means. Still, I guess they feel that an image speaks a thousand words. (I woudn't want that rich red one in my sandwich though - it looks like a quick route to sogginess.)

And then there's the supposed "mounting evidence that links [GE foods] to toxic & allergic reactions, sick, sterile and dead livestock, and damage to virtually every organ studied in lab animals". Now, at the very least, I'd expect to see links or citations supporting a sweeping statement like that, but the article offers none. (I asked for them, when I made my sin-binned comment.) Anway, on the livestock front, there are now 22 years' worth of data available on stock fed mostly on GMO foods. Back in 2014 Steven NovellaB wrote about a very extensive review study that looked at the first 19 years of information. The animals covered by the various studies reviewed in the paper Novella discussed number in the billions (that is not a typo). It did not identify any problems of the sort listed in the OP that I'm discussing here. (The split between industry-funded & independent research projects into GMOs is roughly 50:50.)

On allergies - apparently the great majority of food-related allergic reactions in the US are caused by antigens from 8 foods: peanuts, tree nuts, milk, eggs, wheat, soy, shellfish, and fish. only GM soybeans are commercially available. There are a number of fairly stringent tests required of those applying to market foods with a GE component, & in New Zealand the results of these tests have to be reviewed by Food Safety Australia NZ. The goal of these safety assessments?

The goal of the safety assessment is not to establish the absolute safety of the GM food but rather to consider whether the GM food is comparable to the conventional counterpart food, i.e., that the GM food has all the benefits and risks normally associated with the conventional food.

So far no food derived from GMOs has been found to cause new allergies.

TL;DR: a scary headline & some scary 'factoids', unsupported by data of any sort. Colour me unimpressed. 

A And in fact, a reverse image seach on google brings up a large number of iterations of this image, including several pages that make it clear that the paler tom of the two is supposedly teh ebil GMO version. They clearly avoid letting the facts get in the way of a good story. 

B Novella has a couple of more recent posts on this subject here and here. The second link makes for fascinating reading. 


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A couple of years ago I spent a lovely afternoon in the huge domed glasshouses of Singapore's "Gardens on the Bay". The 'cloud forest' was my favourite - both for the concept & for the wonderful range of epiphytes on show there.

Singapore cloud forest mountain.jpg

So you'll understand that I enjoyed reading about it again on this blog, written for the New Zealand Epiphyte Network. Anyone with even a passing interest in New Zealand's native plants should drop by the site. And maybe sign up to be part of their citizen science project while you're there?

Go on, you know you want to :)

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For the last few years our Centre for e-Learning has run WCeLfest - a day of presentations & discussion around using various technology tools to enhance teaching & learning. I always find these sessions very valuable as there are a lot of people doing some really interesting things in their classrooms, & there's always something new to learn & try out myself. I offered to run a session myself this year, which is what I'm going to talk about here, but I was also asked to be on the panel for a discussion around what universities might look like in the future, and that was heaps of fun too.

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singapore conservatory dome.jpgAfter goggling (a mixture of gobsmacked & ogling) the supertrees, our little party of escapees from the day's official IBO program made our way into the Flower Dome, the first of the two great conservatories in Singapore's Gardens in the Bay. Cue more 'oh, wow!' moments as the scale of the building became apparent - this is what it looks like once you're through the doors (& into the wondrous coolness of the huge space):

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I often think it's a real pity that so many students seem to actively dislike learning about plants. Why is this? Is it because plants don't seem to 'do' anything interesting? I used some of the information described here in a test question this year - the results were a salutory reminder to spend more time working with students on how to read and interpret data sets.

One of the Biology Standards year 13 students [currently] study is called 'Describe animal behaviour & plant responses'. Now, if 'behaviour' = response to a stimulus, then that's really what plants are doing too. I guess it's just hard to think that something (usually) green, (usually) fixed in place, & with no nerves or muscles is able to behave - but plants do, & some of their behaviour is really quite subtle. You're probably familiar with plant responses to stimuli, including tropisms, circadian rhythms, & flowering in response to changes in photoperiod. But there's more: not only are there plants that actively hunt, but plants can also communicate - with each other, & in some cases with animals as well.

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When I set essays for my first-year students to write during the semester, I try to give them a scientific paper on each topic to start them off. This means that I need to do some extra bedtime reading as I need to select those papers carefully. Today’s post is based on one of those: a paper about a fascinating mutualistic relationship between marine algae and a species of isopod (the same crustacean group as the more familiar slater).

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A while ago now I discussed how some plants are able to warn others when they're under attack by grazing animals. Now it seems that these responses and interactions are even more subtle - a new paper describes how signalling chemicals in tobacco plants can be altered by the grazers' saliva (Allmann & Baldwin, 2010).

As I described in that earlier post, plants demonstrate a number of responses to grazing. They may produce chemicals that directly harm the grazing animal in some way: poisons, maybe, or substances that inhibit the animal's digestive processes. Other, volatile, chemicals allow communication with other plants - they signal the presence of herbivores and stimulate those plants receiving the signal to produce defensive chemicals in advance of any grazing attack. And it appears that some of these volatiiles can attract predators that in turn feed on the grazers.

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Your immune system is a wonderful, complex, multipartite mechanism that usually allows you to fight off the attentions of the various pathogenic organisms (bacterial, fungal, and viral) that you'll meet during your life. I say 'usually' because it's not always successful on its own, and even where it is, you can be laid low for quite some time - think of flu, but also think of measles, mumps, smallpox, polio... This is where vaccination comes in: this 'primes' your immune system so that it can react far more rapidly when it encounters the actual pathogens themselves. NB for a taste of some 'alternative' thinking on this concept, try this thread over on SciBlogsNZ.

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This is a new story & potentially a very exciting one (& I must thank Grant for drawing this story to my attention!). A Nature News item (Petherick, 2010) describes the discovery of green algae apparently living within the cells of salamander embryos. I'll wait with interest for the published paper, but if this finding's confirmed then it will be the first recorded instance of endosymbiosis in a vertebrate.

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In one of our first-year biology labs the students spend a bit of time looking down the microscope at various algae & protozoa. Some of their samples come from a container of interestingly weedy water from my fishpond. Not only is the pond covered with duckweed & Elodea, but it turns out to have a wide range of tiny unicellular plants & animals, & some not quite so tiny, such as Volvox.

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February 2018

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Recent Comments

  • Alison Campbell: Aaaand it's fixed. The original page from which they'd lifted read more
  • Alison Campbell: What naughtiness! I guess I'll have to see where the read more
  • Stuartg: I'm afraid your link to the article now goes to read more
  • Alison Campbell: The people doing the asking - the ones I'm responding read more
  • Millie: Maybe ppl are saying things just to learn, and they read more
  • Richard: High dose resveratrol (5g was used in the study) actually read more
  • Alison Campbell: Or you could, you know, summarise your own reasons for read more
  • marc verhaegen: For recent info, google "aquatic ape theory made easy 2017". read more
  • Alison Campbell: I feel that may have connotations of 'night soil', which read more
  • herr doktor bimler: Would it sound better as "liquid soil"? read more