GMO Corn Experiment ends June 27!

posted in: Science | 8
Contents of 1 experiment kit. Note the ear numbers on the barcode stickers in each bag. Don't mix up the ears!
Contents of 1 experiment kit. Note the ear numbers on the barcode stickers in each bag. Don’t mix up the ears!

Last fall, we launched our first Citizen Science experiment, the GMO Corn Experiment, to test whether squirrels and other wild animals avoid eating GMOs if given the choice. After a lightning fast crowdfunding campaign on Experiment.com, and an energetic week of assembling almost 1,000 kits, we shipped hundreds of kits across the country and science started happening right in everyone’s back yards. When we sent out the kits it was almost Winter, but now that Spring has come to a close it is time to end the data collection for this experiment so we can analyze all of your data! I would also like to share some of the other things that have been going on behind the scenes while everyone has been doing their experiments.

Finish your experiments before June 27, 2016 at midnight!

As of today, there are exactly twelve days left to complete the data collection for your GMO Corn Experiment kits. If you have one of these kits but have not yet completed your experiments, stop reading and go grab them right now! I’ll wait.

Now that you’ve got the kit in front of you, register on our GMOExperiment.com website so you can enter your data. Follow the directions in the experimental protocol and get your first experiment set up and placed outside in a good place for animals to visit it. Take your starting picture of the experiment and sign into the website to upload your picture and record your observations. You’re already halfway done with the first experiment! It’s that easy. One day later, you can take your second picture, enter your data, and close out the experiment. Then, set up the second experiment and repeat!

We already have more than 420 kits fully completed on the GMOExperiment.com website. This is fantastic! But the more data we can get – the better because it increases the statistical power of the experiment. This means that for each additional experiment you complete, the entire experiment gets that much better at determining whether wild animals can or cannot tell the difference between the GMO and non-GMO ears of corn. Your experiment kit can mean the difference between answering our research question to the satisfaction of the scientific community versus leaving it as an open question for people to debate. Let’s put the nail in the coffin on this question, and get those ears out on the nails of the your apparatus today!

If you have any questions about your own experiment, registering, and setup, feel free to contact us at [email protected] and we will get back to you right away.

Finally, make sure that when you enter your data on GMOExperiment.com that you fully close out your experiments. If you have not done so, please log in now and close them out.

animal-action1What are the results?

Back in December, we asked our Citizen Scientists to decide whether they could complete their experiments before winter set in at their location, or if they needed to wait until the spring. We set an early data collection deadline for January 15 so we could take a look and do a preliminary analysis. We got about 360 experiments to look at (47 of them were repeated experiments) from 194 kits. All in all, it looks like everyone did very well and gathered some very useful data.

Many of our Citizen Scientists gathered excellent data on what animals were visiting their experiments, along with weather conditions, and more. In fact, some set up wildlife cameras to capture pictures of them in action! Above are a few of the test subjects whose preferences we are measuring.

What kind of results did everyone get? We can certainly see a lot of variation from experiment to experiment, where depending on the time of year, animal activity, and location, some of our Citizen Scientists had some ears fully consumed after 24 hours, some partially consumed, and some hardly touched at all. The onset of winter was most likely a huge factor, but some pictures showed that despite snow piling on top of the experimental apparatus, it didn’t stop some hungry critters! This is why we were in such a hurry to take the ears as soon as they arrived and get them into the kits and shipped out!

total-cornage2When planning an experiment like this, there are so many unknowns about each future location, and when we planned this experiment we thought very carefully about how long the corn should be left outside. Too short and there will be nothing to measure, while if the experiments take too long they will be harder for everyone to complete and more can go wrong with it. In case there was no activity we added the option to repeat the experiment with the same ears, which was done 47 times in this first dataset. I’m happy to report that the length of time we chose for the experiment was overall very conducive to getting results we can use.

So what were the results, you ask? Well, like we have said from the beginning we won’t be able to announce a conclusion until all the data was in, but we did see a lot of ears getting consumed, often completely, and often like a tornado passed through the experimental apparatuses! Total cornage. Sometimes the corn was even removed entirely from the apparatus, or the whole thing was dragged away. I fielded a lot of emails and calls from volunteers who ran into issues like this. If you find two empty cobs in the corners of your yard, then I think you can count those as 100% consumed. It was interesting to see how some ears were torn to shreds with shards of kernels everywhere, while others had been neatly picked clean. It turns out that one experiment that was subjected to such immaculate consumption was being visited by a bird (above), so even when we can’t see the can’t see the animal that visited the experiment, when we observe variations in the signs of eating behavior left behind we are likely seeing evidence of different species of animals.

While there were some ears fully consumed, the really interesting part I found were the ears that were not fully consumed. While our main research question is whether the animals will avoid eating GMOs, examining experiments where only one eat has been eaten, or both ears are partially eaten could give us an indication about preference for one over the other. It is possible that we could find that one genotype was more likely to be eaten first, and that once it was gone then they could have switched to the other one. While there were many ears like this in our experimental results, it is too early to form any conclusions about this until we have the rest of the data. Like the pictures of completely consumed ears above, don’t take these images as representative of all of the results. Our final conclusion will be made after carefully examining all the results. All the more reason for you to get your experiments outside today!

preference1

Behind-the-scenes of the GMO Corn Experiment

While our volunteers have been diligently gathering and entering their data, we’ve been up to a few things that you haven’t yet heard about. These are things I meant to tell you about sooner, but I just completed a 2,000 mile move back across the country to my home state of California, which as you can imagine was quite overwhelming. But before I moved, I found a great opportunity to get more of these corn experiments out to school classrooms. Thanks to the financial support of our Sustaining Members as well as the American Society of Plant Biologists, I took 120 of our corn experiment kits to the National Science Teacher’s Association (NSTA) conference in Nashville, TN, to hand them out at the ASPB booth. This was my first experience at a science teacher’s conference, and it was exciting to be able to tell educators about our project and sign them up to do the experiment with their classes. Thanks to our supporters who fully funded the creation of these kits, I was able to answer “I can have this for free?” with an emphatic YES!

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At the NSTA conference handing out GMO Corn Experiment kits. And wearing a corn shirt, of course! Credit: KJHvM

The conference was also a great time to have conversations about biotechnology with teachers, and on more than one occasion I was approached by an attendee who saw my sign about the experiment and said “I have an opinion about GMOs!” When they learned about the experiment and the idea that they could test some part of their opinion with a scientific experiment, all of them left with a kit. The conference also gave me many ideas about resources that could really help kids learn about the science and the technologies being developed. Why haven’t we been doing this sooner? – I’ve been asking myself that ever since. I couldn’t stay for the whole conference, so thanks to the help of Katie Engen, Scott Woody, Suzanne Cunningham, Suping Zhou and more, I’m happy to report that by the end of the conference there were only 4 kits left out of 120 – and they quickly made it into the hands of a few more teachers on the East coast!

Next, we also contacted Monsanto and worked out some new details with our corn. To make sure that we can trust our results – whatever they will be – we wanted to conduct some independent analyses of the corn that they grew and donated to the experiment. If you recall, the two varieties of corn are genetically similar except one has eight genetically engineered traits while the other has none. The two plots of corn were grown near each other to make sure that they were grown in similar conditions, but not so close that they would cross-pollinate with each other. If this happened then some of the ears of non-GMO corn would have some GMO kernels on them which could mess with our experiment. We also wanted to verify that the two varieties of corn have identical compositions – that the carbohydrates, fat, and protein levels are the same. If one of them is significantly different, it could affect the animals’ preferences! Finally, while we made sure that some of the results of the study could be presented publicly before the study was done, we wanted to add a proviso to make it explicit that student citizen scientists could present their own experiments at their local science fairs. So why did we have to contact Monsanto about this?

The genetically engineered corn in the experiment is patented by Monsanto, and in order to do research on their corn we signed a material transfer agreement (MTA) with the company that explained what our experiment was all about, and what we were going to test. This was discussed and drafted before the corn went in the ground in the spring. This MTA basically says they are giving us the materials for this experiment, and that we have the right to publish whatever we find, as long as we share the results with them. But if we want to do additional experiments we would need to add them to the MTA. As soon as we decided that we wanted to add these extra details, they were very understanding and accommodating, but it just takes time to discuss, draft, sign, etc. When the experiment is through, we’ll share our whole experience with the world so that you can see how this all went with its successes and pitfalls. Suffice to say, it has been a good experience and we will help provide a road map for others to follow who want to dig in and start their own research.

Last call to get your name on a scientific paper!

Ok, now for my final pitch for our citizen scientists to get their experiments outside right away. Everyone who participates in this experiment will get their name on the final paper. That’s right, we are going to have one of the biggest acknowledgements section of any research paper on GMOs, and you will be able to have your name along with the donors, helpers, and everyone else who has been involved in this one-of-a-kind experiment. I can’t think of a better way to reward everyone for all their hard work than permanently recognizing their contributions in the scientific literature itself. That’s my final pitch – let’s get this done!

(In case anyone wishes to get another experiment kit, while we can’t promise that there will be much time left to be included in the paper when you get it, we have a few left which you can get here.)

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.