April Fools comes in a shiny box

posted in: Commentary | 5

I don’t know about you, but I had a fun week, and a very fun Friday. Besides all the usual things I get myself into, I decided to make a shiny box for our blog mascot, Frank N. Foode™, and pull a little prank on everyone. I conceived of the idea months ago, and this week I had to get it all together in time. I announced on the blog that not only was there a Frank N. Foode™ doll for sale in stores, but that each box came with genetically engineered seeds for kids to grow. This took a little bit of planning, and had some interesting results. I had two main goals, and the first was to have some fun.

Sunday evening, I sat down and combed the internet for images to use to make a box. I envisioned a 5×4 box a foot tall, with a flap on the back. Bit by bit it came together, and looked something like this:

(Click to zoom in on the picture)

Grad student life is busy, and I didn’t get to printing this out until Thursday afternoon. I actually printed it on poster material, which I thought might be too thin to work, but it worked out nicely. Getting it home unwrinkled was a challenge given my two-wheeled mode of transportation, and a little razor-blade work and careful creasing later, I had a box ready to glue together. The plastic window was actually one of those old term paper covers sliced to fit. To make Frank stand up inside, I had to cut some slits and twist-tie his rear husk in place. My spouses Ariela provided some skillful handwriting to label the seed packets, although it did not show up in the video. (see below) I should also credit Valerie Lusk, Anastasia’s sister, for her Frank N. Foode™ artwork which made it into two places on the box.

The following morning, at roughly 6:30 or so, I set things up to record a short video talking about the ‘exciting news’ and showing the box in a very live form. I could have written it out, but I thought that it would not only be faster this way, but seeing the box handled in real-time would make it that much more real. I mean, who wouldn’t consider that maybe this is not a joke if I’m waving a toy box around on camera? Granted, Frank  N. Foode dolls you can buy with corn seeds may not be so fantastic, but adding that the seeds have been genetically engineered puts it over the top.

Naturally, something so fantastic immediately arouses suspicion, on April 1st especially. However, for some it was not so easy to dismiss the possibility. One person searched the Toys R Us website to see if it was up yet. A fake Toys R Us page added later in the day confused things a little more. After all, according to the video, they bought 10,000 units! (The video has now been edited to reflect the post-prank news, with a little commentary.)

Others, such as whomever runs the @MADGEAustralia twitter account (likely Madeleine Love), revealed precisely the worries that many anti-GE people have. GE crops must cause allergies, and the scientists must know this is true which is why they aren’t labeled. Here are some snapshots of tweets, with a few thoughts interpolated:

Screaming with laughter. @franknfoode has put together a [grow your own allergies in your backyard] kids #GMO product. Only this is…

.. the kids seem to have to comply with licence conditions. Guess they’re not allowed to replant their #GMO seeds! @franknfoode

..The #GMO gift for kids that has to be repurchased year after year! ROFSWL Hey @franknfoode you’ve got that marketing edge.

Oh yes, I thought it would be thoroughly hilarious to put a license agreement on the lid, for your enjoyment here is a clear shot of it. But I’ll bet that if this was real something could be worked out similar to the arrangement made for developing countries – small scale home seed saving is not the kind of thing that big commercial seed companies would likely care about. But this is my joke, so I get to make the license agreement laughs:

(Definitely click to embiggen)

I thought that the absurdity of license agreements on a children’s toy would be ripe to make fun of. MADGE continues:

Have you considered the liability attached to this product @franknfoode? Those #GMO seeds are LABELLED. If new allergies dvlp, cd be problem

Before releasing your treasure onto the market @franknfoode, would you like us to go through the #GMO data to assess the risk ur facing?

I’m sure Frank would love to spend time going through the peer-reviewed data, as would I. Consider, however, that GE foods are labeled in many other countries, and no one has traced any novel allergies to it, nor have legitimate liability concerns been raised in those places.

If this is not an #aprilfools joke @franknfoode, can you confirm that it’s Bt-11? #GMO

A number of reports say that Syngenta’s #GMO Bt-11 corn retained the bacterial origin of replication @franknfoode – eww

What about a bacterial origin of replication makes someone who considers themselves qualified to school others on risk assessment go “eww?” Why, the word “Bacterial”!

@franknfoode Did you forget the word ‘bacterial’ in that q’n? Have you got the Bt11 #GMO constrct & addit’l bits sequence?

An origin of replication is merely a sequence of DNA that is recognized by a protein that initiates replication in circular bacterial chromosomes. It is not a protein, nor does it actively do anything, and it is not active in eukaryotic cells such as plants. In other words, this is an inert stretch of DNA and not a cause for “eww.” Note that moments before this “MADGE” was all too quick to play the role of expert on relative risks of genetic sequences, but now can’t get past the word “bacterial.” How does she feel about all the billions and billions of bacterial origins of replication in your average tub of yogurt?

Another Frank [Plughoff], who tweets as @Earthnik, instead started talking about getting royalties from this toy product. If you recall, Frank P. featured our beloved Frank N. Foode™ in one of his “Earthnik Gazettes”, as a sinister way to market GE foods to children.

[email protected] If true then @franknfoode owes me residuals because the toy corn was my idea in the EG: http://bit.ly/ans7y9

Which prompted Hendrik to respond thus:

@Earthnik you’re trying to make money out of #GMO? You really dissapoint me. 🙁 @franknfoode

The check must have gotten lost in the mail. Funny how a “STAUNCH GMO OPPONENT” lights up their eyes with Dollar $ign$ when they think that their intellectual property is being used! (Hint: It was also not your idea.)

Hendrik also added,

@franknfoode Not online yet. http://is.gd/VNBG0K , would love to buy and grow your family! Is it really Bt-corn inside?>Not allowed in EU:-O

Hendrik checked the Toys R Us website looking to see if it was available – and liked the idea. And this, actually, was the majority reaction that I encountered. I sent a notice through some email lists, and one person said they tried to buy 4 on the fake Toys R Us page I put up that afternoon, and realizing it was a joke, said it would be great if this actually happened. April-Fools-savvy readers of the blog registered their belief that it was a prank, followed by a desire to have one. A few other regulars, whom I shall allow to identify themselves if they so choose, were psyched about it and thought it was real. I delight in fooling my friends as much as I do strangers on the internet – actually more! (It was retweeted enough to make the #GMO Daily, too)

I also brought the box to my lab Friday, and each member of my lab (who did not know about it beforehand) thought it was real and wanted to know if they could get a free one since they work with me. One held it up and said, “Yeah, you’re finally selling them!” and when I walked into my adviser’s office to punk him as well, I can safely say he was quite surprised and confused, and likely thinking, ‘How many potential thesis paragraphs were not written last night to put this together?’ But he did like the idea of the corn seeds heterozygous for recessive mutant alleles. ‘Very Entertaining!’ Was his final word.

This part of the Prank Frank Box is I think the best aspect – seed corn heterozygous for recessive kernel mutants. The kids get a packet of normal-looking seeds, with instructions on how to grow and self-pollinate the seeds with bags and paper clips. Then, when the self-pollinated ear develops and matures, all of a sudden these kernel mutants manifest (at a 3:1 ratio), and the kids could have a surprise and a teaching moment about basic genetics. Dominant and Recessive, Punnet Squares, Homozygosity and Heterozygosity, Mendelian Genetics – right in their backyard. This would not only be very easily do-able, but also very educational. As I said in the video, the kids could try more advanced experiments and replant the seeds next year, or perhaps even cross the seeds with their friends’ seeds to make double-mutants. Extra packets of seeds could also be available for more experiments.

As for providing genetically engineered sweet corn seeds, currently only one is available, a Syngenta variety that produces Bt. I know Monsanto is working on their own at the moment but is not yet available. Theoretically, all you need to do is cross GE field corn with sweet corn and keep backcrossing to a good sweet corn variety while hanging on to the transgenes. However, field-corn crosses into sweet corn bring in all kinds of nasty off-flavors (Remember that munching/spitting scene in King Corn? They were eating field corn), and it naturally takes a while to do well to create a high-quality sweet corn with genes that came from field corn. Bt would be the obvious choice for such a toy package, however with small plots of backyard corn there will not likely be much Lepidopteran insect pressure (corn borer, earworm) and it may not make much of a difference to your backyard garden. However, knowing that it is GE and eating and enjoying it will be the main benefit. I wonder, though, if the Bt was put in a sweet corn that’s good for a backyard garden, or just large-scale fields? A question worth considering – because an ill-adapted corn variety for those conditions could have the opposite effect. But right now, Bt corn is just about the only kind of GE crop that could currently apply for a back yard hands-on experiment.

Legal issues are another question, and it would take a forward-thinking seed company to work something out to allow backyard cultivation of their transgenic corn. If sold as hybrid corn, the likelihood of good seed-saving and further planting and cultivation is low. And given that many of these companies have worked out $10,000 or below exemptions for seed saving in developing countries, this is magnitudes smaller and maybe they could be persuaded to help out. There may also be regulatory issues, someone suggested to me that there may be an acreage issue involved – as in, below the minimum acreage for a field to prevent insect resistance. Anybody heard of this? A refuge in a bag would be easy to do – heck the Mystery Mutant seeds could be that refuge. (Another teaching moment about evolution!) And there’s an added benefit to trying to get GE seeds part of the mix – Greenpeace would give it lots of free advertising.

Certainly there would be obstacles both legal and practical (who’s going to maintain those heterozygous seeds for the toys?) to including seeds in a Frank N. Foode™ doll box, but I think there’s a lot of potential – Especially in filling our photo album with pictures of people with Frank, and the chance to do a little informal education about genetics and maybe help spark the kind of interest that could lead to a future career or a fun hobby. As I was sitting there designing the box graphics or gluing the box together, I kept thinking This could actually work. So maybe this time the Frank N. Foode™ toy for sale in Toys R Us is a hoax, but maybe the next time it could be for real. So I’m sorry to those who are disappointed to find out that they cannot get their own Frank N. Foode™ (or the seeds) for now, but this leads me to the second goal I mentioned at the beginning of this post, and that was to test the water. Feels warm, maybe a little choppy, but I’m game to take a swim!

Follow Karl Haro von Mogel:
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.