Monsanto: out with GMOs, in with big data

Monsanto is (partially) switching from GMOs to “naturally” grown plants:

The lettuce is sweeter and crunchier than romaine and has the stay-fresh quality of iceberg. The peppers come in miniature, single-serving sizes to reduce leftovers. The broccoli has three times the usual amount of glucoraphanin, a compound that helps boost antioxidant levels…Frescada lettuce, BellaFina peppers, and Bene­forté broccoli—cheery brand names trademarked to an all-but-anonymous Mon­santo subsidiary called Seminis—are rolling out at supermarkets across the US.

But here’s the twist: The lettuce, peppers, and broccoli—plus a melon and an onion, with a watermelon soon to follow—aren’t genetically modified at all. Monsanto created all these veggies using good old-fashioned crossbreeding…

In 2006, Monsanto developed a machine called a seed chipper that quickly sorts and shaves off widely varying samples of soybean germplasm from seeds. The seed chipper lets researchers scan tiny genetic variations, just a single nucleotide, to figure out if they’ll result in plants with the traits they want—without having to take the time to let a seed grow into a plant. Monsanto computer models can actually predict inheritance patterns, meaning they can tell which desired traits will successfully be passed on. It’s breeding without breeding, plant sex in silico. In the real world, the odds of stacking 20 different characteristics into a single plant are one in 2 trillion. In nature, it can take a millennium. Monsanto can do it in just a few years.

…There they slice open a classic cantaloupe and their own Melorange for comparison. Tolla’s assessment of the conventional variety is scathing. “It’s tastes more like a carrot,” he says. Mills agrees: “It’s firm. It’s sweet, but that’s about it. It’s flat.” I take bites of both too. Compared with the standard cantaloupe, the Melorange tastes supercharged; it’s vibrant, fruity, and ultrasweet. I want seconds

I think this neatly illustrates the silliness of much of the debate between GMOs and natural breeding techniques. One of the interesting facts to come out of this article is the number of GMOs that Monsanto has made that haven’t made it out into the world!

Also Big Data comes to farming:

Big agricultural companies say the next revolution on the farm will come from feeding data gathered by tractors and other machinery into computers that tell farmers how to increase their output of crops like corn and soybeans…

The world’s biggest seed company, Monsanto, estimates that data-driven planting advice to farmers could increase world-wide crop production by about $20 billion a year, or about one-third the value of last year’s U.S. corn crop.

The technology could help improve the average corn harvest to more than 200 bushels an acre from the current 160 bushels, companies say. Such a gain would generate an extra $182 an acre in revenue for farmers, based on recent prices. Iowa corn farmers got about $759 an acre last year.

File this under ‘intentional control of our ecology’ and ‘hacking our taste buds’. Next thing you know, they’ll have artificial taste buds…

[via metafilter]

Plants are people too

Ever since I started studying neuroscience, plants have always fascinated me.  These guys don’t have a nervous system, really, but they are able to do a lot of things we would normally expect to require a nervous system.  A recent book – which I hope to read soon, by god I put it near the head of my 300+ goodreads “to read” list – has a lot to say on how plants experience the world:

When Chamovitz introduces the baffling way that irises appear to “remember” what color of light they last saw or how the parasitic plant dodder (Cuscuta pentagona) can “smell” whether it’s next to a tomato (one of its preferred hosts) or a stalk of wheat, it’s hard not to share his enthusiasm for unraveling these mysteries. He elaborates on elegant early experiments in plant biology as well as modern-day discoveries, providing a window on the work of the many scientists who clarified the mechanisms driving these perplexing phenomena. The latter include the use of genetic mutants of the botanical workhorse Arabidopsis to unveil 11 different photoreceptors that allow the plant to discern, among other things, whether it was last exposed to the red light present in the morning or the far-red light present in the evening. Finely tuned gas chromatography has revealed how dodder differentiates between the attractive chemicals in eau de tomato and the repulsive ones ineau de wheat.

…Consider proprioception, the sense of the relative position of our body parts in space that allows us to complete coordinated movements without tripping over our own feet. Do plants have something like proprioception? Certainly, says Chamovitz, but for plants, it’s about the position of their parts relative to gravity.

Photoreceptors?  Odor receptors?  Proprioception?  These all seem like fundamental attributes of our sensory nervous system.  And yet what use does a plant have for a nervous system?  It moves too slowly to really need one, I imagine.  They can also sense and communicate with each other in a way that seems similar to how bacteria sense and communicate with each other.  I imagine we have  a lot to learn from plants about basic principles for nervous system integration of social and sensory inputs.

PS. There’s more here!

Posts this week

Type of species and type of social network determine how parasites infect a population as it gets larger

Hermit crab social networks!

Social needs sculpt primate faces

Remember: song learning is social learning

Social decision-making across species …and more, but older

Economic Sociology newsletter on New Institutional Economics

A bit late on this one but genoeconomics is an important trend

A really great writeup about serotonin and anorexia

Elephant seal foraging!

When grasshoppers are afraid of spiders, plants decay more slowly.  This is the whole point of this blog: the environment and our interactions with our environment shapes our bodies (and minds!), and the two really cannot be disentangled.