An Inoculated Introduction

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Greetings. My name is Karl Haro von Mogel. A few years ago, while I was studying genetics as an undergrad at UC Davis, I took an introductory plant biology course that opened up my eyes. Professor Robert Thornton, now retired, got me to think about plant biology like no other subject before. Although my first lab experience was as an intern in a mouse genetics lab studying endocrine disruptors, I was hooked on plants. Within a couple short years, I was adding whatever plant biology courses I could to my schedule, and took a paying job in a plant lab studying legumes and symbiosis.

Meanwhile, I got into food. Well, I’ve known how to bake and cook a few things since I was very young, but on my own living in an apartment I was figuring out how to make different kinds of food, across different cultures. I also had a gardening itch, and started supplementing my diet with vegetables that I tended at an organic community garden on campus. Before long, I was thinking about the biological basis for the wonderful flavors I was tasting, and the nutritional value of produce. I thought, could I make any of these plants better?

On the other side of campus, I dug into a different kind of soil. The muck of a political columnist that made outrageously false claims about climate science galvanized my desire to try to write a science column for the school paper, The California Aggie. I called it The Inoculated Mind, and I wrote it for three years before handing it off to another science writer so I could start something else. I loved picking topics every week to write at length about, and explore not only the history and current status of science, but also the social, philosophical, and political aspects as well. A love for writing (that I never knew I would have) and expressing my opinions (this was never a secret to my family) on controversial subjects had me also hooked.

While I was writing for The Aggie, I started doing a weekly science radio show on a local community station. Later, I replaced writing for the newspaper with writing a blog, keeping the naame, The Inoculated Mind. Soon enough, I turned my radio show into a podcast, which I call the Mindcast. It is available in iTunes, and at my site here.

Pulled in two separate directions, my interest in plant genetics and the genetic basis of flavor and nutrition in crops, and my desire to communicate and editorialize about science in the press, were pulling me in opposite directions, so it seemed. Scientist, or Journalist? How about Journalist Scientist? I’ll do both. Many people expressed doubt that plant genetics and journalism could ever go together. I’ll explain how they’re a perfect match for me below.

I worked in another plant genetics lab, screening tomato DNA for mutations in specific genes, and when I was finished with that and my then-girlfriend, now spouse Ariela finished her degree at Davis, I applied for graduate school in plant genetics. I wanted to enroll in a good plant genetics program at a school with a strong journalism program as well. My first pick was the University of Wisconsin, Madison, which was top in plant breeding, and had a great journalism program, as well as a similar program called Life Sciences Communication. When I was visiting schools to check out their programs, I met a professor at Madison named Dr. Shawn Kaeppler, who had a project that fit me perfectly.

He received a grant to fund a research project on a gene in sweet corn called Sugary Enhancer. It makes already sugary corn even sweeter, but we don’t know where it is or how it works. On seed packages at your local nursery, it has this gene (or the recessive allele of this gene, technically) if it says “Sugar Enhanced.” At the same time, funded by the same grant, Shawn had an educational video project he wanted to start up to promote plant breeding to prospective students and the general public.

So that’s where I find myself today. Working through the five or more long years of graduate student level coursework to get my Ph.D., conducting research on the Sugary Enhancer gene, doing a minor in Life Sciences Communication, and on top of it all, a two-year video project. I’m already working on ideas about what I’ll do when that is complete.

I'm the one in the hat - not the best picture of me at work on my vids!

Maybe I might do something about biofuels, perhaps genetic engineering. But I plan to continue this combinatorial approach to life: doing science, and communicating science at the same time. There’s a lot that can be gained by having people who are knowledgeable about a particular topic who can also communicate the issues surrounding that topic to people who don’t have specialist training in those fields. And lately, there has been a widening public knowledge gap and a deepening controversy over one such topic, Genetic Engineering.

It strikes fear in its opponents, and worry in those who have only barely heard about it. Tinkering with the genetics of the crops that grow our food? Moving genes between species? Altering the nutritional content of produce, or adding compounds toxic to insects? How unprecedented! Actually, it’s not.

We’ve been tinkering with the genetics of our crops for thousands of years, we just haven’t known what we were doing. Genes have moved between species on their own (it’s called Lateral Gene Transfer) over the course of evolution, and we’ve been doing it for a long time by crossing our crops with wild relatives. We’ve been duplicating chromosomes, combining entire species together to form new species (ever eaten wheat?), and enhanced the nutritional content of the carrot, which didn’t used to be orange, by the way. As we have come to understand the ways that plants defend themselves from insect pests, we have come to understand that breeding pest resistant plants was all about increasing the activity of compounds that kill insects.

The few genetically engineered crops that have been on the market have been very widely adopted by farmers, yet, there is a steady distrust and rejection of these crops by consumers. Why? Is it because the first traits engineered into crops benefited the farmers and not the consumers? Is it because large companies were the first to take advantage of the new technology, rather than public institutions? Or is it because it is being perceived as ‘more of the same,’ an extension of problematic farming practices that are damaging the environment, and even our own health? Or does it go deeper than that into philosophical views about the nature of life, and humanity’s place in the Universe?

Or does it stem from a vocal contingent of activists that know only a little about the subject, and the lack of scientists communicating this topic effectively?

Count me in on this debate. It is one of the more important scientific discussions of our time, and not everyone realizes this. We have the ability to directly alter the genetics of our crops (and more), with increasing precision and complexity. We need to discuss how to use this technology, and how this will affect our cultural, social, political, and philosophical views. There are problems that can be solved with it, and issues raised by it, but most of all – scientists need to get involved and keep a clear head about what we want out of it. I think I can do that, to help people learn about this fascinating topic, and give the information necessary and arguments that are helpful in forming opinions about genetic engineering.

But I couldn’t do it alone, especially with my busy schedule as a grad student. So that’s why I started the Biofortified blog project, and invited other scientists and grad students who are interested in educating and fostering public discussion. Together, we can build a valuable public resource and public forum for discussing issues and responding to current events related to the field.

I like to cut deep into the scientific details that I love to study, but I also cut deep into the other reasons why people believe what they believe. I like to think of introducing people to new facts as ‘Inoculating’ them with science, and forming arguments against false or ‘pathogenic’ ideas as inoculating people against those ideas, like a mental vaccine. Yes, I like to debunk or ‘fisk’ poor arguments and you’ll see quite a bit of that from me here. I am interested in biofuels, and as UW-Madison is a part of the Great Lakes Bioenergy Research Center, I sit in on seminars and a few meetings and I will get to see this project progress first-hand. I’m also intimately connected to the food that I eat, and I might post a few recipes or fun genetic facts about foods that you may or may not yet enjoy. Finally, my opinions on ethical topics will be tempered by a humanistic outlook, where my views are based on verifiable facts and human values, rather than prior philosophical commitments.

I hope you’ll stick around and be a part of the discussion.

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Karl earned his Ph.D. in Plant Breeding and Plant Genetics at UW-Madison, with a minor in Life Science Communication. His dissertation was on both the genetics of sweet corn and plant genetics outreach. He recently moved back to his home state of California. His favorite produce might just be squash.