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Tracing the ancestry of corn back 9,000 years to an unlikely plant

Remarkable Creatures - Tracking the Ancestry of Corn Back 9,000 Years - NYTimes.com
The greatest surprise, and the source of much past controversy in corn archeology, was the identification of the ancestor of maize. Many botanists did not see any connection between maize and other living plants. Some concluded that the crop plant arose through the domestication by early agriculturalists of a wild maize that was now extinct, or at least undiscovered. However, a few scientists working during the first part of the 20th century uncovered evidence that they believed linked maize to what, at first glance, would seem to be a very unlikely parent, a Mexican grass called teosinte. Looking at the skinny ears of teosinte, with just a dozen kernels wrapped inside a stone-hard casing, it is hard to see how they could be the forerunners of corn cobs with their many rows of juicy, naked kernels. Indeed, teosinte was at first classified as a closer relative of rice than of maize. But George W. Beadle, while a graduate student at Cornell University in the early 1930s, found that maize and teosinte had very similar chromosomes. Moreover, he made fertile hybrids between maize and teosinte that looked like intermediates between the two plants. He even reported that he could get teosinte kernels to pop. Dr. Beadle concluded that the two plants were members of the same species, with maize being the domesticated form of teosinte. Dr. Beadle went on to make other, more fundamental discoveries in genetics for which he shared the Nobel Prize in 1958. He later became chancellor and president of the University of Chicago.

May 23, 2010

The Problem with Greenpeace

The tide turns against Greenpeace In a nutshell: Greenpeace activists are loudly opposed to genetically engineered food and are opposed even to testing the food to see if it's safe. And Greenpeace members have been destroying GM crops in England.
Greenpeace anti-GM food activists may well have done the organisation's reputation irreparable damage. In place of the pious deference shown by the British Press to the movement's every word on biotechnology, a consensus is now growing that the mindless vandalism of recent weeks has gone too far. It is not, of course, just the lunatic fringe of Greenpeace that has been hauled before the magistrates to answer charges of criminal damage. The organisation's executive director, Peter Melchett also felt entitled to take the law into his own hands by helping to destroy GM maize on a farm in Norfolk, and was forced to delay a foreign holiday as a result until bail was agreed. If these were just rather eccentric activities, quite characteristic of the English upper classes of which the 4th Baron Melchett is so much a part, then they might be forgiven. But preventing the course of genuine scientific enquiry, which aims to answer the very questions that Greenpeace poses regarding the safety of GM crops, is both mindless and undemocratic. So much so, that another member of England's green aristocracy, the Honourable Sir Jonathan Porritt, Baronet and ex-director of Greenpeace allies Friends of the Earth, condemned the destruction of experimental crops. Friends of the Earth themselves, however, were remarkably silent on the issue, but Helen Browning, chair of the Soil Association which sets standards for organic foods, opined that breaking the law was unjustified.

May 22, 2010

US geneticist creates artificial life

Craig Venter creates synthetic life form | Science | The Guardian
Scientists have created the world's first synthetic life form in a landmark experiment that paves the way for designer organisms that are built rather than evolved. The controversial feat, which has occupied 20 scientists for more than 10 years at an estimated cost of $40m, was described by one researcher as "a defining moment in biology". Craig Venter, the pioneering US geneticist behind the experiment, said the achievement heralds the dawn of a new era in which new life is made to benefit humanity, starting with bacteria that churn out biofuels, soak up carbon dioxide from the atmosphere and even manufacture vaccines. However critics, including some religious groups, condemned the work, with one organisation warning that artificial organisms could escape into the wild and cause environmental havoc or be turned into biological weapons. Others said Venter was playing God.

May 21, 2010

Kevin Costner may have a solution for the BP oil spill

Kevin Costner may hold key to oil spill cleanup - latimes.com
The " Kevin Costner solution" to the worsening oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico may actually work, and none too soon for the president of Plaquemines Parish. Costner has invested 15 years and about $24 million in a novel way of sifting oil spills that he began working on while making his own maritime film, "Waterworld," released in 1995. Two decades later, BP and the U.S. Coast Guard plan to test six of his massive, stainless steel centrifugal oil separators next week. Plaquemines Parish President Billy Nungesser welcomed the effort, even as he and Louisiana officials blasted the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers for delays in approving an emergency plan to build sand "islands" to protect the bayous of his parish. "It certainly is an odd thing to see a 'Kevin Costner' and a 'centrifugal oil separator' together in a place like the Gulf of Mexico," said actor Stephen Baldwin, who is producing a documentary about the oil spill and Costner's device. "But, hey, some of the best ideas sometimes come from the strangest places."