Overview of Plant Characteristics

In this episode I introduce some of the key characteristics and properties of plants that influence how they are used as food. The life forms of plants compared to animals, along with the evolutionary history that led to these characteristics, is a good place to start a study of plants as food.

Overview of key plant characteristics that influence how plants are used as food.

Finally coming around?

Apoorva Mandavilli writing at The NY Times:

As many as 25 percent of people infected with the new coronavirus may not show symptoms, the director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention warns — a startlingly high number that complicates efforts to predict the pandemic’s course and strategies to mitigate its spread.

I’m not sure what’s taken the C.D.C. so long to realize this, I saw the same reports weeks ago coming out of research in China, South Korea, and Vo, Italy. This is the Achilles Heel in our current approach to dealing with this virus, and I’m afraid we won’t move past it until we have widespread testing.

I’m really pulling for the SpaceX launch scheduled for this week, as my colleague and friend John Kiss’s experiment is launching on it:

Our experiment uses the same hardware and facilities on flight as John’s, so I’m also really hoping everything goes well up there, otherwise we’ll have problems getting approved to launch.

UPDATE 2017-06-01: Today’s launch was scrubbed due to lightning in the area; they’re going to try again on Saturday.

Faculty governance and technology

I’ve been trying for many (like, 7?) years to help our faculty governance system to recognize the importance of the Campus Technology Council, to little avail. In the last couple years I’d pretty much quit asking for it to be considered as an ‘official’ committee, even though it’s just as active and engaged in new projects as ever. This piece by Jonathan Rees and Jonathan Poritz in Academe spells it out clearly:

Faculty must educate themselves about the possibilities and dangers of IT in order to maintain their prerogatives. Information technology might seem like merely an instrumental aspect of institutional operations that might be left entirely in the hands of administrations, like landscaping or decisions about which model of copiers to put in department offices. But when IT is a fundamental part of the creation and dissemination of new truths, and when it can be used to monitor and to control all aspects of research and teaching, it necessarily becomes one of those areas where the faculty should exercise its primary responsibility.

Since I know for a fact that faculty at my university have actively “engaged” (thrown down) with the administration over decisions about both copiers AND landscaping, it seems like I ought to be able to rouse some interest in academic technology. Anyway, I’ve ordered a copy of Poritz and Rees’s book, maybe I’ll pass it along to the appropriate committee chair when I’ve finished it.

Chipotle’s GMO- (and evidence-) free marketing strategy

In a (not very) bold move, the restaurant chain Chipotle has announced that they are moving to a completely GMO-free menu. Reading the NYTimes article, there is a startling lack of explanation for why the chain is spending the effort and additional cost to source certified GMO-free ingredients:

Chipotle’s chefs preferred sunflower oil but finding enough was tricky. Chipotle found a farmer willing to increase his production of sunflower, but the company needed more oil than he could produce.

So instead of using one oil for the majority of its needs, Chipotle now uses sunflower to fry its chips and tortillas, while a non-G.M.O. rice bran oil will be mixed into rice and used to fry fajita vegetables.

Given that there has never been a single reputable article to support the claims of the anti-GMO crowd that GMOs are harmful, and given the 20-plus years of crops with genetically-engineered traits raised and eaten, the reason for a major chain to do this seems baffling. Then, this:

So Chipotle’s flour tortillas are now made with a non-G.M.O. canola oil, which costs more, and the company said last week that it might have to raise prices slightly this year.

So, given the lack of scientific evidence indicating a difference, why are they doing it? Marketing, I think. It’s brilliant, really. They have chosen a marketing strategy that pays for itself by justifying higher prices, borrowing a page from the Whole Foods playbook. Never mind that there is nothing wrong with GMO foods, there doesn’t have to be. Just by marketing the fact that their food is not GMO, they are able to set up a (false) dichotomy in consumers’ minds, planting the idea that perhaps GMO foods are not as healthy. And they don’t even have to make a case, really, because just to suggest a difference is enough. It doesn’t matter that they are playing a game of ‘cooties’ or ‘cheese touch‘, as long as it works to devalue the other options.

Here is Chipotle’s page explaining the decision. It comes down to 2 reasons (their 3rd is just preference): 1) GMOs need to be studied more, which is really the precautionary principle — prove no harm — which is quite difficult to do; and 2) GMOs harm the environment. These are the planks of the anti-GMO party platform, and both have been roundly refuted. Perhaps the fact that we now have definitive evidence that the exact same process of genetic engineering has been occurring in the wild for millions of years will help to convince some that there is no inherent risk in the technology itself?

Anyway, go ahead and enjoy a 1200-calorie GMO-free burrito. Whatever you do, though, don’t even think about washing it down with a Coke. That stuff is LOADED with sugar from GMOs! I wonder why they’re still selling that?

Looking forward

Launch of SpaceX Dragon on a Falcon 9 rocket, 14 April 2015, Cape Canaveral, FL. Image credit: NASA

I’m looking forward to the day that my seeds are transported to the ISS on one of these babies! There’s still a long way to go before my project is even ready to apply for a flight position, but I’ve started working with support scientists to schedule all the tests that need to be done. It’s going to be a very busy summer around my lab!

Read more about today’s launch, known as the CRS-6, at NASA’s page about the mission.

Seeds can change their coats for the season

Whenever I teach on seeds, either in my non-majors Food class or my Plant Physiology class for majors, I can’t help describing them as the children of the mother plant. I know, not exactly creative, but it helps to paint a picture of the roles of the parent plant and the seed. I like to talk about how the endosperm or other food reserve is like a packed lunch, put there by the caring mother to feed the baby plant as it germinates and becomes able to feed itself. And what kind of parent sends its babies out without a coat? It usually gets a few chuckles, at least, to put this all in human terms.

That coat on the seed? Sometimes it’s a jacket, and other times it’s more like a down coat, and the mother plant chooses based on the temperature. I’m not making this up. In a study published this week, plant scientists link the toughness/thickness of the seed coat to the temperature endured by the mother plant. If the mother experienced warmer temperatures, it will make more of a protein that limits the production of tannins in the fruit. Less tannin makes for a thinner seed coat and faster germination. On the other hand lower temperatures cause the mother plant to make more tannins, leading to a thicker coat. Simple, yet remarkable.

See a news article on this research, or go check out the paper itself.