The Giant that Got Away
    By Robert H Olley | June 7th 2013 02:22 PM | 18 comments | Print | E-mail | Track Comments
    About Robert H

    Until recently, I worked in the Polymer Physics Group of the Physics Department at the University of Reading.

    I would describe myself


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    What with all the current talk of GMOs, I would remind folks here that some 20th century methods also raised fears.  A more “traditional” method has been to double the chromosome content of plants — one well known example is Triticale is the hybrid of wheat (Triticum turgidum) and rye (Secale cereale).  This, of course, should be familiar to those who remember the Star Trek episode “The Trouble With Tribbles”.  When crossing wheat and rye, wheat is used as the female parent and rye as the male parent (pollen donor). The resulting hybrid is sterile, and must be treated with colchicine to induce polyploidy and thus the ability to reproduce itself.

    Alas, colchicine is a very  toxic compound to humans.  The Wikipedia article on polyploidy also says (without reference) that “its use may have other less obvious consequences as well.” 

    It seems that in the USA, this sort of procedure has been taken up by enthusiastic amateurs.  But according to a forum Tetraploidy Conversion (as applied to ornamental bulbs):

    Colchicine is not the only answer. Some folks use the very available herbicide ‘Treflan’ [trifluralin] to induce tetraploidy.  The cultivar Ajuga “Catlin’s Giant” is supposedly a tetraploid that appeared at the edge of a large patch treated with Treflan.  The central plants were all killed, but a single crown on the edge developed into this giant cultivar.

    Here is the plant in question, growing in the Harris Garden at Reading University. 

    However, the ‘one surviving plant’ makes me think of the claims that a product “kills 99.9% of bacteria”.  What if the 0.1 % of survivors are the tough nasties, who now have it their own way?  Probably not, but possibility does make one think twice, as in this cartoon with a man in a pub reading the headline “Both Cup teams trained on milk” and saying “That’s not much of an advertisement for milk — one of ’em lost on it”.

    The author goes on to say:

    There are a number of other chemical agents used to induce tetraploidy, variegation, flower doubly and other mutations.  Handling any potentially mutagenic chemical has inherent dangers - beware.

    Any other chemical mad scientists trying other treatments?

    Kansas City MO  USA 
    (note to my fellow Brits: Kansas city, Missouri has about 3 times the population of Kansas City, Kansas, just across the border.)

    Here from Wikipedia are the weedkillers under discussion:


    Trifluralin is a commonly used pre-emergence herbicide. With about 14 million pounds used in the United States in 2001, it is one of the most widely used herbicides.  Trifluralin is generally applied to the soil to provide control of a variety of annual grass and broadleaf weed species. It inhibits root development by interrupting mitosis, and thus can control weeds as they germinate.

    Trifluralin has been banned in the European Union since 20 March 2008, primarily due to its high toxicity to fish and other aquatic life. 


    Oryzalin is a herbicide. It acts through the disruption (depolymerization) of microtubules, thus blocking anisotropic growth of plant cells.

    Apparently not so toxic to wildlife, and according to, it seems that oryzalin is less toxic to the experimental plants also.

    When I was younger, in the 1960s and 70s, irradiation of seeds was one method people were using to generate new plant varieties.  I was greatly concerned about the effects of irradiation of plant and animal material, even processed items in the form of food that I was intending to consume.  However, it does remind me of The Seeds of Time, a collection of science fiction short stories by John Wyndham, published in 1956.  In the last of the collection, “Wild Flower”, an exceedingly beautiful new flower appears at the site where a plane crashed with a cargo of radioactive material. 

    The central character arrives to find the flower being sprayed by the landowner, to be lost forever.


    Bonny Bonobo alias Brat
    Kevin Folta also wrote an interesting article here called Atomic Gardening - The Ultimate Frankenfoods in which he said :-

    'If you are not a fan of transgenic (GMO) technologies, just wait until you hear about the freakish practices scientists and big seed companies are sneaking under the radar!  Now, scientists soak seeds or tissues in toxic chemicals or subject them to high fields of radiation to cause random damage and genetic changes.  Random damage to DNA causes unknown effects that produce new proteins, leading to new plant traits.  The new plant lines are untested for safety and not assessed for environmental impact.  They want to put these on your dinner table and feed them to children!'

    'A powerful radioactive source in the center of this field hammers surrounding plants with gamma rays.  This treatment induces random damage DNA that results in new genetic variation.' 

    'Actually it has been done for decades.  No opposition, no labels wanted, no protesters, no fear.  Okay for organic cultivation and the EU.'

    'Mutation breeding is the process of inducing genetic variation in a crop through use of chemical treatment or radioactivity.  Chemicals like ethyl methane sulfonate (EMS), sodium azide (SA), N-nitroso-N-methylurea (NMU) are used to soak seeds or treat tissue or pollen in culture.  They induce random changes in DNA, usually single bases or small deletions. These changes alter the encoded protein, forming new proteins that may be more or less functional, or perhaps truncated or even not made at all.'

    'For radiation, fast neutrons, x-rays or gamma rays bombard seeds causing double-strand breaks in chromosomes.  These lead to larger deletions of genetic material and sometimes rearrangements. These changes are essentially random. They are induced by short-term exposure (seconds to hours) to a powerful radioactive source, usually Cobalt-60. Sometimes whole plants are grown in high radioactive fields to generate these genetic errors. The Institute for Mutation Breeding in Japan has generated a number of cultivars using these techniques.'

    'Actually many cultivars have been produced using this technique. There is a wealth of information at the Mutation Enhanced Technologies for Agriculture website.  Barley, wheat, corn, bananas, grape, tomato, sunflower... at least 3000 induced-mutant plant lines in the Mutant Variety Database. Some are ornamentals, so not all food crops.'
    My article about researchers identifying a potential blue green algae cause & L-Serine treatment for Lou Gehrig's ALS, MND, Parkinsons & Alzheimers is at
    Kevin Folta’s article expresses my misgivings far better than I could. 

    That open-field irradiation seems very dodgy to me.  I had envisaged things being done inside some sort of closed facility.
    Robert H. Olley / Quondam Physics Department / University of Reading / England
    Bonny Bonobo alias Brat
    That open-field irradiation seems very dodgy to me.  I had envisaged things being done inside some sort of closed facility.
    Yes Robert, I thought it would be better contained too. I wonder where it is? Not in my backyard I hope! I feel sorry for the thousands of birds, bats and bees who probably fly into that nuke zone and then maybe out again or animals that drink from the nearby radioactive water dam or are simply living in that nearby forest :(
    My article about researchers identifying a potential blue green algae cause & L-Serine treatment for Lou Gehrig's ALS, MND, Parkinsons & Alzheimers is at
    Co-60 doesn't make anything radioactive, and it's been deemed safe to use to sterilize foods (currently spices). I've heard you can seal up a steak and dose it, and leave it on a shelf for months, pretty much the same with milk. Think of the amount of food that spoils, that could be preserved with no ill effects (astronauts have been eating it for years). How many starving people could it feed?

    But, everyone freaks out, so it's only used for limited items. Radiation!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!RUN!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

    But the same would apply to x-rays, nothing becomes radioactive. Fast neutrons are probably done close to a reactor, and I suspect they test for radioactivity before they go anywhere.

    It would be bad for wildlife, but maybe the dose they're using isn't that high, it doesn't seem to be killing the grass.
    Never is a long time.
    Gerhard Adam
    How many starving people could it feed?
    Exactly zero, just like it does now.  However, it is quite one thing to use Co-60 under controlled circumstances versus blanket irradiation outdoors.
    How can cobalt-60 affect people's health?

    All ionizing radiation, including that of cobalt-60, is known to cause cancer. Therefore, exposures to gamma radiation from cobalt-60 result in an increased risk of cancer.

    Because it emits such strong gamma rays, external exposure to cobalt-60 is also considered a significant threat. The magnitude of the health risk depends on the quantity of cobalt-60 involved and on exposure conditions:

    • length of exposure
    • distance from the source (for external exposure)
    • whether the cobalt-60 was ingested or inhaled.

    How does cobalt-60 get into the body?

    People may ingest cobalt-60 with food and water that has been contaminated, or may inhale it in contaminated dust. The major concern posed by cobalt-60, however, is external exposure to its strong gamma rays. This may occur if you are exposed to an orphaned source, or if you come in contact with waste from a nuclear reactor (though this is very unlikely).

    Mundus vult decipi
    This is totally irrelevant, and aimed to cause unnecessary concern.

    Gerhard Adam
    No, it's meant to counteract your assertion that Co-60 is some harmless element.  It isn't and you know it.  The fact that it can be used to sterilize something because it doesn't it render it radioactive isn't quite the same thing as being exposed to the actual radiation.  However, you blew that off as being too insignificant, despite the obvious use of creating genetic mutations.

    So, the fact is that it is used precisely because it can disrupt the genes.

    The real contradiction is why you would say that it would be bad for wildlife while simultaneously asserting that it is harmless. 

    I think that you're so hung up on the advocacy issues of the food that you're failing to engage in the other arguments surrounding it.  No one has asserted [at least to my knowledge] that this approach creates dangerous foods.  The concern raised was that such radiation exposure would occur in open areas without any containment.
    Mundus vult decipi
    Even if you were planning to eat some, you'd have to get it out of its lead case first, so yet it is safe if It's treated like a gamma source should be.

    Gerhard Adam
    You crack me up.  It's NOT safe, which is precisely why it needs to be treated like a gamma ray source.  Why is it that no one can simply refer to things as they are.  We don't tell people driving a car is safe just because we want them to believe in such a fantasy.  We tell them it can be dangerous which is precisely why they have to be careful.

    Just because something is not safe doesn't mean it can't be used.  It just means it has to be used responsibly.  There's no point fabricating a view of things simply because its convenient. 

    What's so funny about it, is that you and others have no trouble going on and on about "nanny government" and then you turn around and try to express "nanny science". 
    Mundus vult decipi
    I guess I presumed anyone who had access to a gamma source would know how to use it responsibly, therefore it is perfectly safe to others. You seem to want to make a point of how scary it it to someone like Helen, who is likely to start worrying about irradiated food and plants, where in fact they are not radioactive, and safe to use in whatever context they were ment to be used. They are far safer than your car.

    Gerhard Adam
    Again you are missing the point.  The question isn't about the food.  The question is what effects this has on all the other things living in the environment where these plants are being irradiated.  There are undoubtedly trillions of microbes and millions of insects and yet we bombard this area with radiation for the explicit purpose of modifying genes? 

    It is not my intent to scare Helen, but I don't see how patronizing her helps.  It is precisely that attitude that becomes problematic because people become casual.

    While everyone would like to believe that people take it seriously, the reality is that often they don't.   I once found a 5-6 oz. sample of radium sitting unshielded in a coffee can in a student physics lab [at university].   No one even knew how long it had been sitting there, but it was on the order of months.

    For a more recent review about how radioactive materials are handled ...
    Mundus vult decipi
    So how did Co60 being used for seed mutations all of a sudden become about nuclear material safety of college students?

    I think the big lead vault, and dead college students will inspire safe handling.

    Gerhard Adam
    I think the big lead vault, and dead college students will inspire safe handling.
    How Darwinian of you.  It's a shame you aren't willing to allow the same sort of "learning curve" for subjects you would rather advocate for.
    Mundus vult decipi
    Well when all the new kiddies get their new laptops, maybe they should get radiation protection gear, of may be the University should do a better job of tracking it radioactive material.

    But it still means foods and seed irradiated with gammas and X-rays are perfectly safe, and they shield the areas they use the sources as best they can when irradiating seeds. Foods are done in a whole different indoor facility.

    Gerhard Adam
    Actually an interesting perspective exists when one views this unrelated post regarding travel to Mars.  While there may be many issues, concerns, and approaches, the disturbing part is the number of people that are willing to incur huge risks to others for the sake of their own curiosity.

    Certainly one may debate what the real versus perceived risks are, but it seems there is this growing schism between scientific reassurance [which is increasingly taking on a "trust us" attitude] versus addressing the legitimate concerns that many have over technologies that they are not at all convinced are necessary.

    This, of course raises the old philosophical questions about whether one must do something, simply because one can.  While the pursuit of science can take one down any number of paths, it is relevant to ask whether it is a valid presumption that society must correspondingly indulge and finance all such interests regardless of need.
    Mundus vult decipi
    Certainly one may debate what the real versus perceived risks are
    How does one do that when one of the parties doesn't understand any of it, or the risk involved, or potential risks, worse still is the person who understand enough to extrapolate something into 100-1000's of consequences that are not possible, creating a reasonable sounding issue on the internet that expands to whole countries banning useful technologies.

    How do you debate entire countries that think there's a conspiracy by corporations trying to sell them dangerous foods only to make a profit?
    Never is a long time.
    Gerhard Adam
    How do you debate entire countries that think there's a conspiracy by corporations trying to sell them dangerous foods only to make a profit?
    Perhaps by not selling them dangerous foods to make a profit.  Sorry, that was said "tongue in cheek", but much of it is due precisely to the previous colonial relationships those countries had with those that wish to do business now.  It hasn't exactly been in circumstances of where trust was a valued commodity.
    How does one do that when one of the parties doesn't understand any of it, or the risk involved, or potential risks...
    I suppose the question comes down to whether it's important to them or not.  That's the point of freedom, because it includes the freedom to make your own mistakes too.  Simply having someone jump up and down declaring someone else to be an idiot doesn't make much progress.  Similarly denying others the right to make their own decisions will also not get you very far.
    Mundus vult decipi
    much of it is due precisely to the previous colonial relationships those countries had with those that wish to do business now

    You mean places like France? Does this mean we'll have to save them from us?
    Never is a long time.