The Doric Column

March 21, 1999

March 1849
Transgenic Potatoes Á La Carte
The Tragedy, 1845-1851
Peregrinations of a Plant Breeder

March 1849

Say what you want about the Internet. One of its uncanniest aspects is the Doppler effect it imposes on historical perspective.

Professor Mulder's commentary on the potato was accompanied on the same page by a report of the "extraordinary locomotive speed" of 90 mph on the English railroad.

Today, the train of contemporary communication, which zips along at the speed of light, frustrates a detached analysis of the past. Things that were  are continuously reshaped by things that are  and by unexpected things that might be true  that need to be sorted out.

You are at your writing desk next to the tracks. You think you have a handle on what happened and why, using the traditional methods of inquiry. The pitch of the onrushing locomotive is largely the same as it was when pen was first put to paper in the Library of Alexandria. Then, on a whim, you do an Internet search and a relationship is made that you could not have imagined, a relationship not apparent using the traditional tools of scholarship. The familiar pitch changes suddenly and forever. The locomotive surges down the tracks, into the future. Everything in its wake is altered.

The perpetual motion of history occurred to me this past week as I celebrated, mainly with my legs at a teetotalling dance hall, the feast day of the Irish saint and the family of my father's mother, the Ryan clan.

To begin at the beginning, Gerardus Johannes Mulder, the Dutch chemist cited above, was the first to recognize, in 1838, the unique features of protein. That was his contribution to science. In evaluating the nutritional elements of the humble potato, however, he was completely out  of his element. There, it seems, he simply bought into the reigning stereotype of the human disaster occurring on the island to the west of him, the catastrophe that we ought to feel in our guts whenever starving people are paraded before us, say on CNN.

The potato is a highly nutritious food. Besides the carbohydrate that supplies energy in abundance, it has lots of iron, thiamine, and vitamin C. A birth just before the St. Patrick's Day 1849 issue of Scientific American  went to press would put an exclamation point on the potato and put the lie to Professor Mulder's curt observation once and for all.

Luther Burbank was born March 7, 1849 in Lancaster, Massachusetts during the Great Famine in Ireland. The potato he developed in 1872, at the beginning of his legendary plant breeding and genetics research career, was based on a discovery in his garden. His ensuing cultivation of a blight resistant russet formed the basis of Idaho's gigantic potato industry.

Burbank set out to improve the quality of plants and increase the world's food supply. Today, increasing the world's food supply is the oft-stated objective of giant companies and conglomerates in the field of agricultural biotechnology.

Exactly 150 years to the day after Scientific American  reported Gerardus Mulder's observations on the potato, March 17, 1999, The Irish Times  ran a story that represents well Europe's ongoing mistrust of genetically modified (GM) food: "Doubt cast on safety of Monsanto milk hormone."

Environmental and food correspondent Kevin O'Sullivan reported that a European Union committee on animal health and welfare had criticized the purported safety of Monsanto's bovine somatotrophin (BST), a genetically engineered natural hormone that is injected into cows to boost milk yield. A high incidence of mastitis, foot problems and injection site reactions were cited as evidence. Monsanto has been frustrated in its efforts to crack the European market, and now BST may get caught up with bananas in the U.S. - European trade dispute.

But that's merely a prelude of things to come. Last month, the British weekly New Scientist  ran a series on "GM Foods" to try and get a handle on what was happening.

An accompanying editorial entitled "Monster Mash" showcased a spud, set upright on stage, its contours and texture thrown into sharp relief by a spotlight. The editorial began:

"Every cause needs a martyr. And in Arpad Pusztai, the scientist at the centre of the row over transgenic potatoes that has engulfed Britain, opponents of GM foods seem finally to have struck gold. Not since King Ludd and his followers marched on the cotton mills of Lancashire has there been such virulent hostility to a new technology intended for peaceful purposes."

Transgenic Potatoes Á La Carte

It all began last August at the Rowett Research Institute in Aberdeen, Scotland.

Arpad Pusztai, a scientist at the institute, was studying lectins, the natural poisons that plants produce to ward off insects. He was evaluating potatoes that had been "fitted" with a lectin gene from Galanthus nivalis , the snowdrop, a bulbous European plant with drooping white flowers. He himself had inserted the lectin gene into the potatoes using a "promoter" from the cauliflower mosaic virus.

A promoter serves to kick-start a gene into action and make it produce something useful, such as protein. Viral promoters are "disabled" in that they cannot themselves reproduce and spread disease.

He fed the GM potatoes to laboratory rats to see if any harmful effects would result. In August, he told a documentary team from the British program "World in Action" that the GM potatoes had damaged the organs of laboratory rats and depressed their immune systems.

Opponents of GM food quickly seized on Pusztai's raw, unconfirmed experimental evidence. If the genetic "constructs" used to insert new genes into plants and activate them are suspect, that is, if the basic tools used in genetic engineering can be shown convincingly to distort the development of organs and impair the performance of physiological systems in animals, the whole GM food enterprise begins to wobble like an 800 lb. gorilla on a bender.

The "row over transgenic potatoes that has engulfed Britain" has been thoroughly reported in the New Scientist. The "Anatomy of a Food Scare" in its recent series "Living in a GM World" highlights the chain of events:

10 August 1998: Pusztai appears in a documentary on British TV to warn about the inadequate testing of GM foods.

12 August 1998: Rowett says Pusztai muddled his results and should not have discussed his "unpublished findings."

14 August 1998: Pusztai is suspended and instructed not to speak to the media.

28 October 1998: A scientific panel established by Rowett Institute Director Philip James criticizes Pusztai's conclusions but stops short of accusing him of scientific fraud.

November 1998: Pusztai's supporters counterattack, circulating his "alternative report" among sympathetic scientists.

12 February 1999: Twenty scientists from 14 countries who have examined Pusztai's report accuse Rowett of bowing to political pressure. The group calls for a moratorium on GM crops.

13 February 1999: The British government "rejects calls for a moratorium amid allegations that it is in the pocket of the biotech industry."

14 February 1999: Rowett is reported to have received 140,000 from Monsanto before the blow-up.

16 February 1999: The gag order on Pusztai is lifted and his "alternative report" is published on the Internet. British Prime Minister Tony Blair announces he is happy to eat GM food.

18 February 1999: The British government releases a report saying that growing GM plants might reduce biodiversity but notes that the risks are not limited to crops created by genetic engineering. Greenpeace activists dump four tons of soybeans on the street outside 10 Downing Street. (Soybeans from Monsanto's GM "Roundup Ready" soybean seed have entered international markets)

21 February 1999: A major newspaper poll suggests that 68 percent of people in Britain are worried about eating GM foods.

23 February 1999: Nineteen fellows of the Royal Society publish a letter in The Daily Telegraph  and the Guardian  criticizing researchers who "triggered the GM food crisis by publicising findings that had not been subjected to peer review."

Which brings us to March 1999. On the eighth of this month Pusztai testified before the House of Commons Science and Technology Committee and defended his work against the conclusions of an independent statistician who found "No consistent pattern of changes in organ weights...."

As Pusztai's findings get sorted out and as scientists and interest groups on both sides of the issue continue to speculate, a feature entitled "The Trans-Atlantic Transgenic Cafe Dinner Menu," put together by the BBC, offers an ever-expanding list of possible selections. Here is an abbreviated version:

Trans-Atlantic Transgenic Cafe Dinner Menu

Corn Tortilla chips (firefly gene), Salsa of tomato (flounder gene)


Soup and Salad
Creamy soup of broccoli (bacterial gene), Garden salad of lettuce (tobacco gene)


Catfish (trout gene) or Grilled veggie burger of soybean (petunia gene) served with roasted potatoes (waxmouth gene)


Assorted cheeses (engineered bacterial rennet)


Fresh fruit plate of papaya (virus gene), strawberries (undisclosed gene), raspberries (virus gene) and melon (tobacco gene) served with cream from engineered bovine growth hormone (BST-injected cows)


Chilled apple juice (silk moth gene), Barley beer (undisclosed gene), White wine (virus gene)


The Tragedy, 1845-1851

  I love this country like it loves itself
  every buttercup n bonnán buí
  Primroses opening their simple minds
  in bouquets bunched for free
  n the stunning bloom of the sleeping spud
  like a wealthy bride for the Man Above
  n the bitches of seasons n the sun when it comes
  n the people n their grace n their smiles
  n their sadness n their giving n their thinking
  n their stories n their fun...

The Great Famine in Ireland resounds through history down to the present. The waves buffeted me in the early 1980s when I wrote about it for a University publication.

The title of a public lecture caught my interest: "An Irishman's Observation on the Potato: Its Historical and Nutritional Significance." The lecture was by Vincent Hegarty, a professor of food science and nutrition.

Hegarty's talk and additional reading on my part clarified key facts about the famine, its origin and aftermath:

  • The Irish potato, Solanum tuberosum,  was an ideal food for a rapidly expanding population reliant on small plots of land, provided the crop did not fail. The lack of variety was perilous.

  • The daily diet of an average Irish laboring man was 10 pounds of potatoes--about 30 medium-sized potatoes--plus milk.

  • The blight struck suddenly in the fall of 1845.

  • By the famine's end, about a million people had died and another million had left the country, many for the U.S.

  • Potato late blight, caused by the fungus Phytophthora infestans, remains today, a century and a half later, a powerful constraint to global food production and a focus of genetics research.

Although governments of the middle 19th century weren't equipped to deal with natural disaster on such a scale, Hegarty observed that the British were strikingly inept, their ministers saddled with an rigid form of laissez-faire  capitalism. Relief for the starving Irish should be left "to the operation of natural causes," as one minister put it.

That attitude has never been forgotten, nor has the suffering. Perhaps no one today captures the latter more powerfully than poet Máighréad Medbh in her series of poems entitled Hunger. The Hunger series, Medbh writes, "uses extensive hyperlinks to historical information from and about the period, as well as giving explanations of particularly Irish words and phrases. It also explores the use of hypertext in the actual construction of the poems themselves."

She writes the verse and makes the links and helps carry the memory of the Hunger into the Information Age.

Ireland today is enjoying a cultural and economic renaissance, Medbh writes in a postscript to the Hunger series. "There is an exuberance and confidence which has not been seen since the Celts considered themselves the centre of the universe."

Peregrinations of a Plant Breeder

   I think of myself not as a Master
   whose work must die with him, but
   as a Pioneer who has mapped out certain
   new roads and looked down into the
   Promised Land of Plant Development.

A great ocean separates the site of the cotton mills of Lancashire, England, home of "King Ludd," and the site of the Lancaster Academy in Massachusetts where Luther Burbank received his early education.

Even today, so many generations later, the Atlantic still symbolizes what has been dubbed "the great divide" that exists between two countries, and perhaps two continents, when it comes to new technology. That despite the fact that much of our cultural heritage is from the UK, and that Luther Burbank's hometown was named after Lancashire, hometown of the Luddites.

Yet it was a genius from the country of his ancestors who got Burbank going. At the library he checked out The Variation of Animals and Plants under Domestication  (1867) by Charles Darwin.

"It opened a new world to me," Burbank wrote. "It told me, in plain simple sentences, as matter-of-fact as though its marvelous and startling truths were commonplaces, that variations came from cross-breeding, and that these variations seemed to be susceptible, through selection, of permanent fixture in the individual."

One day in 1872, while walking in his garden outside of Lancaster, Burbank found a "seed ball" ripening on an "Early Rose" potato he had planted. Such seed balls were rare and were known to produce new varieties. According to one account, the seed ball Burbank found "contained 23 seeds, 10 of which would fit on the head of a pin." He planted them and selected two plants from the seedlings. As Burbank told it, "It was from the potatoes of those two plants, carefully raised, carefully dug, jealously guarded, and painstakingly planted the next year, that I built the Burbank potato. And it was from the Burbank potato that I made my beginning as a plant developer."

The Burbank potato was the ancestor of the Idaho Russet or Russet Burbank. For the first time U.S potato growers had a "new large, white, fine-grained potato" that could take the place of those that had become vulnerable to the European blight. In Minnesota, the potato has become the number one horticultural crop with some 40,000 acres under cultivation, mainly with the Russet Burbank variety.

A famous photo and movie clip at the Luther Burbank Virtual Museum make evident the power of his reputation. They show Burbank in 1915 with Thomas Edison and Henry Ford who were in California attending the Pan Pacific Exposition in San Francisco. Edison and Ford took a special train to visit Burbank at his home in Santa Rosa, California where he lived for 50 years and where the horticulturist in him thrived.

In his day, Luther Burbank introduced more than 800 new varieties of plants including varieties of fruits, vegetables, nuts and grains, and ornamental plants. He selected desirable seedlings by walking among them, reviewing about 10,000 in half an hour. Perhaps a hundred would be chosen and marked with a strip of white cloth.

Last Friday, I listened in on National Public Radio's program Science Friday. The program focused on "Plant Biodiversity in Crops and Gardens." One of the expert guests was Susan McCouch, assistant professor of plant breeding at Cornell University. I know something about McCouch's work from discussions with Ernie Retzel, director of academic computing at the University's Academic Health Center.

The union of basic biological science, genetics database development, and high-speed networking will deliver knowledge and discovery tools that Luther Burbank could never have imagined.

McCouch's area of expertise is rice, but she spoke more broadly about crop plants and their evolution, going back 10,000 years. And she spoke eloquently about the importance of preserving biodiversity.

Even at a time--perhaps especially at a time when we can realistically imagine plant genomes being taken apart piece by piece and reassembled in some predetermined fashion, perhaps with some new pieces thrown in, genetic diversity looms large.

Without it, we lose out in the long run, and maybe in the short run. Our never-ending attempts to squeeze out that extra bushel from crop plants, when done at the expense of nature's gift, which is variety, is not cultivating our garden in the manner Voltaire counseled us to do.

In the not-too-distant future, Burbank's field-plot peregrinations will be done by software code that travels along the plant seed's DNA sequence and "flags" critical genes and "marks" insert sites for genes that enhance nutrition, disease resistance, and climatic accommodation.

But will nature's need for genetic variation get its due in all these fantastic manipulations? For all its incredibility, will agricultural genomics leave room for an occasional "seed ball?"

  The generous queen from beneath the lake
  no longer comes callin
  with her skirt full of grain
  n her hands always scatterin.
  She has stripped the earth
  like she was stripped
  while we lay asleep n listened in dreams
  to her song of bronze n green.
  Now she spins the sunbeams inside her hill
  n will come to no-body's plea.


  --William Hoffman

Disclaimer: The opinions expressed herein are the writer's own.

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Searching for potatoes in a stubble field. The Illustrated London News, December 22, 1849. From "Views of the Famine" by Steve Taylor, Vassar College.