Saturday, May 26, 2018

135 - Engineering Plant Virus Resistance

In this week's podcast Dr. Paul Vincelli interviews Dr. Devang Mehta about genetic engineering solutions to plant virus problems.  Dr. Mehta describes the use of RNAi and CRISPR techniques, and some of the surprising things learned from their use.  The work is mostly performed in cassava, a key crop in the Developing World.

Saturday, May 12, 2018

Talking Biotech Podcast 133 - An Extension Agonomist's View on Biotech Crops

Extension specialists are the boots-on-the ground connection between the university and the farm. This week's podcast is a conversation with Dr. Chad Lee, Extension Agronomist at the University of Kentucky. Dr. Lee tells it like it is. How important are GE crops? Are they the most important technology on the farm? What about common myths? Soy, corn, no till, glyphosate, dicamba.... A wonderful conversation!

This week's podcast.

Friday, May 11, 2018

Another Lost to "Distracted" Driving

I can't say for sure that I've ever met Shawn Smith.  Chances are that I likely rode with him at some point, but was likely riding behind him as this elite cyclist disappeared over the hill in front of me. Gainesville, FL has a pretty tight-knit cycling community of riders, with excursions pedaling out daily from the edges of town on to beautiful country roads. 

Hardly a time goes by that group rides are buzzed by drivers passing too close. Some do it because they are impatient and won't slow down to safely pass. Some to it on purpose because they feel a sick need to harass athletes or recreational riders. 

Others do it because they are staring at a phone, reaching under a seat, or engaging any one of dozens of activities not conducive to driving.  We see it every day as drivers.  That car drifting  into the bike lane, then rapidly pulling back to where it is supposed to be.

Every. Damn. Day.

Distracted drivers kill almost ten people a day, and injure about 1000 a day.  That's about on-par with non-suicide gun deaths, a place where there is plenty of rage and stiff penalties for criminal infractions. 

This week a "distracted" driver killed Shawn Smith, an accomplished cyclist that trained daily on Alachua County's gorgeous roadways.  He leaves behind a wife and 13-year-old son.  He was hit from behind by a driver in an F150 pickup and died the next day. 

The Gainesville cycling community loses another to distracted driving.
This is Shawn Smith, husband and father.

It is imperative that we add some nuance to the term distracted driving. We need to define what the distraction is and act accordingly.  Is it unavoidable, like a blown tire or weather?  Or is it completely avoidable, like texting a friend, searching for a phone number, or looking for a radio station? 

The latter are conscious choices, decisions one makes fully understanding that there is risk in engaging those behaviors.  It is the same thing as drunk driving, maybe worse, because the decisions are unimpaired by chemistry. They are a product of free will, and conscious disregard for others. 

In this case, if it is determined that the driver was distracted by choice, he/she will get a slap on the wrist and maybe a fine. We've seen that plenty of times before. 

When graduate student McNair Bostick was murdered by a distracted driver, the 18 year old driver received a $1500 fine.  The soon to be Dr. Bostick's wife and newborn son lost a husband and father. 

When a friend's brother was hit and killed in Miami, the driver received no punishment. 

And the same will likely happen here.  

I'm not sure what the solution is.  The best might be to make consequences so disproportionately severe that drivers just don't go there.

But to Shawn's wife and son it does not matter.  They have been robbed of a beloved father and husband. 

We live in a time when riding a bicycle is one of the riskiest activities you can engage in.  Accidents do happen and always will.  But accidents caused by choice are not accidents, they are examples of deliberate contempt for the law and conscious knowledge that their negligence may harm someone else. 

Let's start raising retribution for harms caused by distracted drivers.  While I'm typically against draconian measures to curb behaviors, this is one place where they should exist. Distracted drivers are more dangerous than drunk drivers, and we need to ramp up the social stigmatization and demand the most severe penalties for offenders-- especially if they harm someone else. 

Wednesday, May 9, 2018

Interpreting "Weed Killer Formulations Toxic to Cells"

When I read it I think, "No S-- Sherlock."

But to Carrie Gillam this is rhetorical red meat, another way to sell a book, put dollars in her pocket, and advance a cause --- by exploiting credulous media and readers. 

Her second recent article in the Guardian says that the herbicide formulation Roundup is more toxic to human cells than glyphosate alone.  This revelation has been published many times before in actual journals, so this is not new information, just time to stoke the fear fire a bit more.

Yes, products formulated to penetrate cells are usually toxic to cells-- in a petri dish.  Use of the product on crops means your cells do not get the same exposure, and your body is not a layer of slime in a Petri dish.

Researchers have examined glyphosate for toxicity or endocrine disruption potential against tissue culture cells. These limited systems are great ways to start understanding how a compound might affect cells, which can then inform later studies in whole organisms.  If it doesn't affect slime in a dish, then it probably isn't going to do much to a metabolizing, living organism.

Time and time again it has been shown that glyphosate itself has no effect on cells in a dish until concentrations become massive.  However, the Roundup formulation does kill cells. Whatzzup? 

Herbicides are composed of several key components-- the biology interfering chemical that kills the plant (in this case glyphosate) and other molecules that aid in its delivery.  Getting an plant-lethal compound into a plant cell can be quite a feat. Plants have waxy layers on their leaves to help retain water and serve as a physical barrier to pathogens. It keeps herbicides out pretty well too. 

Because glyphosate works almost exclusively as a foliar herbicide, it must somehow penetrate into leaves. That means that formulations must contain a surfactant, a molecule like a detergent that allows for good surface contact and even facilitates movement across the waxy cuticle, cell walls and membranes. 

Surfactants have detergent-like properties. At even marginal concentrations they will affect cells in a Petri dish. Just like a tiny bit of dish soap, shampoo, or Dr. Bonner's Pure Castile soap.

One of the best papers to illustrate the cytotoxic properties of the surfactants comes from Dr. Fiona Young's group. She shows that glyphosate has no effect on cells as an endocrine disruptor, and complete formulations become cytotoxic because of the surfactants I wrote about it here, and did a podcast with her discussing the work and activist distortions here

This is how Gillam continues her deception, spinning a known finding (detergents kill cells in petri dishes at certain concentrations) to imply some sort of risk to humans when none is observed. 

Remember, human cells in a culture dish are fragile critters. They respond to anything that doesn't belong in culture medium.  Adding a commercial formulation of an herbicide to cells and observing an effect is normal and expected. 

But translating those findings to imply risk in the whole organism is not allowed. First humans are not exposed to the surfactant and herbicide in biologically relevant amounts. Second, surfactant and herbicide are independent molecules when encountered in tiny amounts- meaning they will be metabolized or excreted independently by the body, which is exactly what happens.

Of course, Gillam and the Guardian don't check with scientists. They have their story of deadly toxicity and they are sticking to it.  After all, it is not about science or truth. To them it is about advancing an agenda, selling a book, and promoting a bogus story that can instill fear about food and farming. 

Saturday, May 5, 2018

Indian Farmer Suicides

This week's podcast is an important clarifier about the issue of farmer suicides in India.  It is a complex issue that is unraveled by this week's guest.  Activists like Vandanda Shiva claim that it is all due to biotech (GMO) cotton and other crops.  This week's guest tells a much more nuanced story based on her studies. 

Friday, May 4, 2018

UCSF Hosts Activist Smear Campaign at Taxpayer Expense

The other day on Twitter I saw an unusual entry that led a popcorn trail to a new level of public records abuse at new taxpayer expense.   

 Thacker says that you should trust UCSF, a top medical school, and its archive on me in the "Chemical Industry Documents".  Hosted by taxpayers to attack taxpayer-funded scientists. 

It’s my old buddy Paul Thacker, the guy that writesunfortunately inaccurate articles about me and others that ultimately endretracted or sporting corrections. He always seeks a way rub his stink on me, in a clear attempt to harm a public, academic scientist that teaches from the literature.

And in this case he does not disappoint.  He posts a curious website, the Industry Documents Library at the University of California San Francisco.  To Thacker and his buddies at US-RTK (the industry-funded hate group that seeks to silence and/or harm public scientists) this database has become a new repository for their “evidence” of foul connections between academics like me and the chemical industry.


Of the 4,000 documents in the Chemical Industry Archive I'm 10% of them, a lifelong public scientist that has 99% of his funding from public sources (USDA, NSF) and the Florida Strawberry Industry. 

First, chemical industry?  Industry database?  The first entry is an email between me and folks at Cornell University.  They asked me to sign a recording waiver for my seminar, and I inquired if Prof. Ron Herring could join me on a podcast.  Chemical industry?

The second is me and UC Davis’ Dr. Alison Van Eenennaam.  Chemical industry?

Maybe there are some emails with friends in the seed companies in there somewhere.  I didn’t dig deep, but these are mostly personal emails between academics; me and another professor.  This is not illicit conversations with the “chemical industry.”

However, Thacker, Ruskin and company use the fact that these emails exist in this database as overwhelming evidence of malfeasance.  That’s spread via Twitter and other conduits.  Oh, and they put the emails in the database.

US-RTK, an industry-funded hate group, cons UCSF library to host my private emails, calling it "chemical industry" communication.  I'm mostly speaking with academics, students, others. Your tax dollars at work!  

I called the UCSF Library and spoke with Kate Tasker.  She was polite, but insisted the documents were bona-fide proof of deep chemical industry collusion that were appropriately cataloged in that collection.

She has no interest in taking the documents down, no interest in investigating the lack of relevance to the "chemical industry". To them, US-RTK is doing its job as a public watchdog, fingering chemical industry pawns like me, lifelong public scientists they want to silence.

All the while Thacker and others exploit UCSF’s credibility to add gravity to their hateful false claims.

Here's the bottom line. My emails are provided to activists at taxpayer cost, then are handed over by activists to a taxpayer-funded database, posted with the intention to a harm taxpayer-funded scientist.

Where’s John Stossel when you need him?

Thursday, May 3, 2018

The Progressive Lacks Integrity- Exploited to Spread Thacker's Misinformation

Paul Thacker fancies himself a journalist that exposes unethical industry-academic collusion and impropriety. 

The problem is, he's easily fooled.  He spawns false information that upon publication is frequently either retracted or corrected after publication.  Less credible media leave his word puddle uncorrected.  He's not very smart, and is an incredibly boring, rambling writer.  He is not analytical, not scientific-- instead he actively cherry picks and warps information to conform to the narrative he (or his sponsors?) wants told. 

His hit pieces get a pathetically few retweets and shares.  He's largely irrelevant, even to anti-biotech folks, which is why I never wanted to give him the sick glee, exposure, or personal jollies by publishing a critical analysis of one of his (boring) tomes.  

However, with the intent to harass, he continually uses social media to cite his own shoddy work as authoritative evidence that others (especially me) are corporate pawns, sworn to do the bidding of companies that seek to exterminate human life on the planet with technology.  Because that's a great business model. 

His modus operandi is simple-- tarnish the reputation of legitimate scientists he targets, using false information, wild interpretations, untruthful extrapolations, and bogus claims. The Union of Concerned Scientists has even written about his brand of harassment. What a guy.  

Sadly, he sometimes exploits legitimate news sources to publish his filth.  The LA Times (where they basically republished the retracted PLoS story) and The Progressive come to mind.  Others have denied him a venue or retracted his claims.  

Paul Thacker sports a special hateful tumescence for me.  He stalks me online, searching for any opportunity to tweet contrived false or negative information about me. It has gone on a long time. I usually grab a screen shot and ignore it. I don't care about him. 

Here is a sampler of this volcano of harassment.  That's just the tip of the iceberg.  

But at some point when you endure almost daily harassment and abuse, it is necessary to comment.  Recently his rain of smear is becoming more intense, so perhaps it is time to show just how malicious this guy is, and illustrate his commitment to harming my reputation and career. 

It also is a good time to spank The Progressive.  I warned them that Thacker was going to use them to publish an attack piece with little merit.  They published it anyway.  They also refuse to correct it or offer apologies.  The editor offered me a 250 word letter to the editor.  Thanks for that.  Shame on The Progressive

I used to like The Progressive.  We're on the same page for the most part, but I'm disappointed that they'd host hostile pieces about public servants. 

Since Thacker routinely cites a junk article that The Progressive was glad to publish, it makes sense to produce a critical analysis of that work.  

The next panels show The Progressive article by Thacker, with my corrections and comments in red.  Enjoy, and reach out if you have any questions or commentary. 

Paul and I share a common interest in transparency. My finances, grants, reimbursements, etc. are all public record and provided in great detail at this site.  Folks like Thacker use that commitment to transparency to develop false narratives, as you see in the panels below. 

Make some popcorn, enjoy his vitriol and the gentle illumination I provide. 

 The title should be a "scientist shares published evidence, and scientists ask experts in journalism to help them be better communicators."

(click to make larger. It does not start at the beginning, but maybe I'll do that later.)

In conclusion, the article in the Progressive is consistent with the level of innuendo, error, extrapolation and false association found in his normal work.  

It is sad to see someone so aggressively against public scientists.  It is even sadder to see that reputable outlets fail to fact check and offer refuge for such publication. 

Glyphosate and School Lunches