Monday, May 24, 2021
Sunday, May 23, 2021
Over the last week the trolls are back, and polluting social media with more anti-Folta nonsense.
I won't even touch on it. Nobody has looked at it, nobody really cares. It gets few likes, retweets, etc., and those that do show some love to the filth are in the defamation network. It's dead.
But sadly I need to always play defense. Now that these allegations are forever placed in findable space, I must reluctantly respond. I teach students, I work with kids, I lead community initiatives, and when someone claims that I'm issuing "threats" I unfortunately have to provide my perspective.
First, Carey Gillam. She tweeted this, this week:
Over the last decade she has trashed my work, made false claims about me and my motivations, and has been generally horrible. She is paid by USRTK, the organization sponsored by industry to endlessly harass me, so she gets a paycheck to post defamation like the above. That's her job.
If she had "bizarre and oddly threatening emails" from me she would have posted them, or paraded them around the internet.
I simply told him, we can discuss this privately, or make it public, you pick. That's not a threat. This is me kindly offering to work it out together privately, rather than having it blow up publicly and have to explain it, like is happening here. I don't want to wreck the guy's future like he wants to wreck mine.
Keep in mind that this was several years ago. I just learned of this complaint last week (5/2021) when it went public, and if it didn't go internet-wide I would never have said anything publicly. They guy has enough problems and could still sort it out and be a good contributor.
If it is false, then we can talk about it and sort it out. It was his refusal to discuss this important issue, and my need to get to the bottom of it that prompted my response. It was not "social blackmail", as proven by the fact that he did not discuss it with me and I kept quiet-- I never made it public until now, when his complaint became public.
And now this long-forgotten annoyance has become very public, not by me, I'm busy working and teaching science.
Which means I now need to work even harder at producing good media and better outreach. Good. I needed a little fire to refocus my efforts in positive ways.
Friday, May 21, 2021
In 2015 the anti-science, scientist slander machine called US-RTK provided my emails and a story to New York Times reporter Eric Lipton. As stated by Lipton on the 9/17/2015 Kojo Nnamdi Show on NPR, (USRTK leader) "Gary Ruskin handed me a story and wanted me to publish it."
The result was a gross misrepresentation of me and my motivations to teach science. To them, it was all part of a corporate cabal to misinform the public in exchange for grant money.
Time has shown that none of it was true. Still the story lives on the internet, forever attached to me in a Google search.
And folks from USRTK keep it alive and well. Last week Stacy Malkan, a USRTK henchtwit, continued to post links to the Lipton story, at least to the documents that supported it, plucked from their context for easy re-interpretation.
Their recent attacks on Dr. Peter Dadzyk brought them sharp rebuke by social media, and their website visits plummeted.
While I'm not speaking at conferences as much and have been living through the other hassles of hard defamation, things are going generally very well. Research is fun, teaching is going great, and I'm investing time in other community leadership efforts. All good.
The Talking Biotech Podcast is entering its 7th year, approaching 1.5 million downloads and 300 episodes.
When you are a hate group that targets scientists the world will catch up, and you will lose relevance. When you do good work that grows with time, you gain relevance.
Why do they beat a tired old story from 2015 that they created? It got them what they wanted at the time, but in the rear view mirror of time it is clear that it was a targeted hit piece that ultimately proved to be bullshit.
And their defamation page on me is alive and well. My students visit it and laugh. They know me, and that's not me.
In a world of important problems, why not focus energy and time on solving them? What dig the heels into defamation of public scientists working for the good of others?
It is a failed formula. Stacy doesn't get that. Maybe she will when USRTK is out of business. Coming soon.
Thursday, May 20, 2021
Yesterday a story was published about me that was largely silly, defamatory and the continued rant of a mad activist that has special hate for me. When you see "Monstanto" in the title you know it is someone stretching for clicks. No big deal.
But he bases his rant on a 39-page complaint that was prepared by a former colleague who decided to spend years targeting me personally and professionally. The complaint went to my university, who just ignored it because I first learned about it yesterday.
Clearly this malicious postdoc knows about FOIA, and knew that his complaint would make its way into the hands of enemies of science and innovation that have targeted me forever. Who's side is he on?
The funny part is, a colleague that has also worked with him on several projects said, "Thirty-nine page complaint! That's the first writing project he's ever actually completed!"
For the most part I ignore it. I'm not going to broadcast that this blog entry even exists, I'll just leave it here. My only point is to add my perspective to the mix, now that they have decided to make a personal situation public.
I'm always glad to answer your questions, so send me an email at kevinfolta at gmail dot com and we'll schedule a phone call.
This is a tough one for me. Someone I genuinely appreciated threw red meat to the people that seek my personal and professional demise. It caused immeasurable harm, mostly because I feel it was pivotal in removing me from public service and university service.
Karl Haro von Mogel was someone I first met as Karl Mogel. He applied to our graduate program in the early 2000's and when I met him we bonded instantly. I appreciated his interest in science communication and the fact that he did a podcast interviewing folks like Michael Pollan, long before podcasts were a thing.
I was one of few that supported his admission. Most felt he was flighty and unprofessional. The fact that he overslept meeting times and needed special rides didn't help either, as we weigh the opinions of our staff heavily, and they were not impressed. We did not offer him admission, and I was sort of disappointed.
He went on to pursue a Ph.D. degree at Wisconsin, and I remained an ardent supporter of Karl. In the subsequent years we connected via common interests in producing media for discussing biotechnology, and had some very nice times.
He always had critics, but I stood by him firmly. He was a good guy at his core, and I still believe that even after he has dedicated endless energy to harm me personally and professionally. He's one of the folks that someday probably will apologize.
Where Did the Problem Happen?
Together with Anastasia Bodnar, Karl and I set up a project on Experiment.com. It was needed, simple and meritorious work, a project to be conducted in the spirit of Citizen Science. The goal was do debunk the tired claim that squirrels and other wildlife would not consume GMO corn.
Karl grabbed the reigns. He contacted a Monsanto (who you'd have to use for such things to have impact) seed contact and arranged for corn to be grown and treated in Hawaii that would comprise the best test of the hypothesis that "Squirrels won't eat GMO corn". The foundational lines were grown next to the GMO equivalent- and airtight experiment. All of those docs have been paraded in social media from FOIA requests, so I won't bore you with them here.
We crowdsourced the project via Experiment.com, and within a very short time we had exceeded our funding requirement two fold, for postage, testing and packaging within 24 hours.
Early on, Karl did a great job. He was the point person. he sent out the kits and did the majority of the leg work. It was really great, and I appreciated his leadership in this important, simple campaign. Kids were getting kits, running experiments in school, doing tons of work. It was an exciting time.
The experiment was supposed to run for two weeks.
After two weeks, I told him that we should shut it down and analyze the data. He said no. He still had some kits to send out and more data would be nice. I fundamentally disagreed, end points are end points, but he was the boss.
Days turned to weeks, weeks turned to months, and I drafted the Introduction and Discussion, with a pretty good idea what the results would be.
But this is where Karl checked out.
We accepted crowdfunding to do the work, he did the hard part, but it languished without completion. This was 2015 into 2016.
Light at the End of the Tunnel?
As the crowdsourced experiment bled from late 2015 into to 2016, and the calendar turned to 2017 I became increasingly sour about accepting money to do a simple experiment and not delivering. The kids that put out the corn and diligently took pictures in 7th grade were now off to high school. It was a major problem for me.
Now, part of the problem was my slow progess on the analysis. I was going to develop a machine vision program to analyze the % consumed, but it didn't work well when compared to manual counts. I can't solely blame someone else for the lack of progress, as it was easy to put it away and not think about it. Nonetheless, we all sat and hoped someone else would drive the completion.
In spring of 2017 I assembled a team of about 30 volunteers. I made standards and we showed images, and the team rated the percent consumed against a standard. It took a good 3-4 hours on a Sunday, but I eventually tallied and assembled all of the data and it was analyzed by an expert statistician. I moved toward writing, but he insisted that he had it under control.
Karl presented the work at Plant Biology 2017 in the education session. I was glad to see it. I had a talk in the same session and it was good to see the project move forward. I had feeling that it was on the way to completion, and we were making good on our commitment to the students and citizen scientists that did the work.
But interest died there.
Violation of Conference Code of Conduct?
A year later I was attending Plant Biology 2018 in Montreal, mostly to showcase my postdoc's work and a new project we wanted to roll out on an international stage.
I saw Karl at a distance in the poster session. He'd dart around here and there, I was excited to talk to him about the corn project and how we'd make good on our commitment.
I could understand why he was being evasive. We were now a year past his presentation at Plant Biology 2017, the kids that did the study in junior high were well in to high school. Online criticism abounded about the lack of follow through, and I was not happy about progress. I never could seem to get in the same place as him, and in the 39-page complaint he sent to my university about me (below), he explains that he was trying hard to avoid me. I get it. The crowdsourced project was a total disaster, he collected $13k in funds and there was no accountability.
I was standing in the lobby of the convention center in Montreal talking to an old friend when I saw Karl walking in my general direction. I got his attention and quickly asked him if we could get together sometime and discuss the corn experiment. I explained how I understood that both were busy, but we really needed to finish the crowdfunded work. We didn't set a time, but I advised that we'd follow up by email.
The next day I got an email from the leadership of ASPB, the American Society of Plant Biologists, the group holding the conference. They told me that I was under investigation for violation of the Conference Code of Conduct. I could not figure it out! What did I possibly do?
I agreed to speak with the CoC enforcement panel from the conference. These are people I know from the discipline, some for over 20 years. We didn't meet in person because I was leaving that day and I wanted to figure out what the heck was going on, so I requested a phone call and we all got together shortly thereafter. I was excited to get to the bottom of this.
What could this possibly be?
They said that there was a complaint levied against me for harassment at the conference. I still was clueless. If I harassed someone I surely would know about it, and I'm very careful in what I say. In fact, harassment is not my way of dealing with anything. I'm a good diplomat that values good ol' persuasion.
They were reluctant to say who the complaint was from, but after several minutes of discussion they told me "Karl Haro Von Mogel."
"Oh, that guy!" I exclaimed.
I was blown away. I told them that I simply asked him to kindly schedule a professional discussion about completing work we said we'd do, to make good on our commitment to a crowdfunded project.
"That's not harassment, that's me simply requesting a meeting," I said.
And I'll never forget the words that came through the phone and into my ear.
"If he says he felt harassed, then he was harassed," one of the people on the committee said.
The call concluded with them saying that they'd consider the evidence and make a decision about the consequences of harassment.
I told them that they, and the conference CoC was being used intentionally as a harassment tool, that I was not the harasser, I was the harass-ee! I suggested a lifetime ban, that Karl was the one that needed a firm retribution for using a conference committee to inflict harm on someone else.
I was told not to discuss it, but that is not their decision. I was the one being harassed by someone reporting me to a professional organization I've belonged to my entire professional career. I was not taking this lightly.
My Confidential Outside Work
In 2017 I was asked to serve as a Subject Matter Expert for a law firm. They had some old data that they felt told a story in a case they were working on and wanted a professional, contemporary analysis using modern tools. Time would show that I was well suited for the role, and spent a lot of time sorting it out. I was compensated well for my time.
Before I could work with the law firm I had to complete the archaic university disclosure forms. The job didn't start yet, I didn't know much about what it would entail, but it was a lot of fun thinking about it. I had to keep all of the information strictly confidential by contract. I was not to talk about the work, the parties involved, where the data came from, etc. I still have not to this day.
The university forms are boiler plate forms, low on detail and options. The form gave me several options of what to pick as a Subject Matter Expert. What box would you pick? I probably should have picked "employee" as it would have been just as accurate.
And since I chose "consultant" and it was not consulting, I sent a note accompanying the document stating that it was not consulting (below), as I really was not giving any advice or direction on reseracn, business or scientific practices. I was analyzing old data using modern tools so a law firm could make some decisions.
I have done consulting. This was not consulting.
I had to walk a very fine line between transparency, disclosure and confidentiality. Letting out too much information could jeopardize the issue the law firm was working on, and it was critical to keep it confidential (even today I don't talk about it and removed certain details that Karl was happy to divulge).
I spoke to the Associate Dean that handled disclosures and outside activities. She helped me assemble a sufficient disclosure for my website that spoke of the nature of the work without divulging the specifics that could harm the case. We consulted with ethics folks and distilled a reasonable disclosure. It stated that I was involved in non-university work as a subject matter expert for a law firm. That's 100% correct and does not jeopardize the sanctity of the case.
Long story short, it was fun and intriguing work, and one of the highlights of my scientific career. It was truly satisfying to definitively solve a very challenging question that nobody else could unravel. I figured it out.
Now keep in mind that this "conflict" is why Karl is so angry-- He sat on the corn project for over a year and my life kept going. His sloth created the environment for the perception of a conflict of interest. I guess he felt that I could not accept new opportunities because old business was not finished.
Re-interpreting Partial Information
In the 39-page document Karl makes reference to a trip I made to Germany, to Bayer. It was freely discussed in social media, etc.
In December of 2017 I spoke at a conference in St. Louis. It was a weed biology conference, and I spoke about the need for clarity and accountability around the dicamba situation.
One of the people in the audience was from Bayer, the company poised at the center of that discussion. I was approached by a scientist that indicated there was a conference in March 2018 that they'd like me to speak at-- not so much a conference, as much as a meeting of scientists and weed experts, and that I'd speak on strategic communication around the dicamba situation.
My talk was not favorable to the companies, but that's what she found attractive.
"Our managers need to hear this," she said.
So I flew to Germany, did my talk, had a great time visiting. I think I raised a few eyebrows and was quite critical of how the situation was handled and how it should go forward.
In his complaint he brings up this event as part of "working for Bayer" when I was actually there as a university professor teaching communication strategy.
I was reimbursed exact costs of travel, with no honorarium or other compensation.
Grant from Bayer
In March of 2017 I applied to the Grants 4 Targets program at Bayer. They fund pilot projects less than 50,000 euro, and I had a very good one for them. I submitted it.
They called me a month later. Whereas normally the process moved into June, my project fit so well that they were willing to fund it at about $57,000 USD, enough to hire a postdoc for a year. Awesome. I got that news in March 2017, months before I began speaking about Subject Matter Expert work with the law firm.
The work started in September, I hired Dr. Lilliana Martinez and she worked on it for a year. In 2018 the Grants 4 Targets program was dissolved so that was the end of funding, even though the scientists we were working with there felt the project had great promise.
The grant had nothing to do with the law firm, the law firm had nothing to do with me speaking at a Bayer meeting, and the Bayer meeting had nothing to do with the grants. However, Karl finds it impossible that this is true. It is true.
Confidential Information Travels Fast
Personal and confidential information was being leaked from my home to people interested . People would ask me about it, I would tell them to check my website. I was not allowed to talk about it.
Now at this time the "GMO Corn" experiment was getting stale. We were two years out and no sign of completion, or interest in completion. Karl starts to grill me on, "Are you consulting for Bayer?"
I told him that I was not (because I wasn't) and that I was involved in confidential work for a law firm (which is true).
He needled me and needled me, and eventually dismissed me from the failed GMO Corn Project. It was bittersweet because I had invested substantial time and energy, as well as the time and energy of people I sourced to analyze the data. It was not reasonable to be eliminated from the project, but at the same time I felt like the captain of the Titanic was offering me the last life boat.
I understand. Karl does not publish, he doesn't understand the rules of authorship, and that you can't really just cut loose people from projects because of a personal problem. We separate business from unprofessional and unproductive personal squabbles.
Leaked Documents and Personal Information
While professional life was going great, I was going through some tough times personally. I was not living at home, but all of my personal property and information was-- and it was slowly being leaked to hostile entities such as GM Watch and Kavin Senapathy, who made it their business to decorate the web with it in the interest of defamation.
Check stubs for travel reimbursement were portrayed as payments and satirical comedy 'zine I wrote in college to sell at bars was being paraded as my endorsement of drunk driving. It was horrible, but the folks doing it had dense histories of targeted defamation, so it was all largely disregarded.
That material that was distributed existed in one place-- my old office at in my former home, and I did not have access to it. Long story.
So someone was leaking it to someone else, and I suspected it was Karl and/or Kavin. In an email conversation, I told him that I could figure out how my personal info was being leaked because I had access to a router and could see where info was leaving my old home electronically.
Frankly, I have no idea how to do that or even if it can be done. My hope was to flush out the people that were distributing my personal information and misrepresenting it.
Allegations of Spying
I told him that my wife and I had free access to each other's emails, texts etc, and that it would be easy to figure out where the leaks of my personal documents was coming from.
He described this as "spying".
During a divorce, he and Anastasia sent a letter to my ex-wife's attorney stating that I was spying on her electronically.
Of course, my ex took this seriously and paid experts to comb the house looking for bugs and evidence of electronic surveillance, which there was none.
At that time she told me about the letter and even sent me a copy. She was very kind, and told me that she needed to protect me from Karl and Anastasia, as they truly were out to cause me problems.
I was amazed when I read the letter to the attorney. Karl and Anastasia now were not just targeting me professionally, they were going after me personally.
I'm glad to supply the letter to anyone that wants to see it, but I won't post it here due to confidentiality with other parties involved that don't want to be involved.
Karl's Note to my Dean About a Tiny Grant
Karl was going through the boxes of documents he received from the University of Florida at significant taxpayer expense. One of the docs was a small internal grant proposal to make short videos about biotechnology through the Public Interest Education Center at the University of Florida.
The total was something like $3500, just enough to buy a few cameras and time on the equipment and do the editing, along with some professional distribution and other costs. Nothing to me personally.
I had forgotten all about it. It was not funded, and was only a vague recollection.
Karl demanded that I be held accountable because I mentioned that he'd be reviewing the scripts for scientific accuracy. Back in 2013 when the proposal was written, Karl and I were on great terms. I respected his opinion and asked him if he could review the work. Of course, he agreed and I listed him in the proposal as a script reviewer.
He now said that it was "fraud" and demanded action.
When I was questioned about it I simply told my Dean, appropriately, that Karl was just causing trouble and that he was combing through documents, harassing me at conferences and causing me other grief.
Quibbling over being mentioned as an authority in a tiny internal grant proposal was hardly misconduct as claimed.
The issue went away without incident.
He'd later send a 39-page complaint (below) to my Dean, complaining about me, citing threats and harassment, none of which happened. In the complaint he also accuses me of an "unacceptable breach of research ethics" which is a lofty allegation I don't take lightly. He's trying to harm careers here.
Falsely Described as an Industry Consultant
Sometime in early 2018 the University of Florida, my employer, received an anonymous request for documents pertaining to my outside employment.
I'm no stranger to public records requests, as I get them constantly. Many are trying to figure out what would compel a life-long scientist to want to discuss science, do science podcasts, and post scientific media.
This particular request was strange in that it was anonymous, but it was filled and went away.
Until it appeared on the front page of Biofortified, Karl and Anastasia's blog. Without warning, or requests clarifications or questions, they posted and then misrepresented documents in a malicious and deliberate effort to harm me and my reputation. They strategically left out the documents that did not support their attack.
The documents were relevant to my approval to do outside work for the law firm, mentioned above.
However, Karl and Anastasia billed it all as "consulting for Bayer" when the documents clearly stated that it was NOT consulting for a company and that it was simply analysis of old data for a law firm. I never saw, met with, anyone from Bayer or any other company. Nothing relevant to modern business or science was ever discussed.
They knew that packaging my work with a law firm as a high-paying consulting gig would give the reddest of the red meat to the anti-biotech activists. They would then go on to try to destroy me personally and professionally using social media.
Karl lights the fuse, walks away, and then watches the mushroom cloud and smiles. Great strategy if you are unable to professionally engage someone in your field, and you want them gone.
It worked to some degree, as I endured months of doxing, hassle, online defamation, etc. from anti-biotech activist groups that have wanted my teaching and outreach efforts silenced for a long time.
Worse, I was almost fired from the gig with the law firm. They told me that if it was not so late in the process that I'd be let go.
I stayed on, did a great job, and solved an important question for them.
There were other scientists involved in this issue, people I know from our discipline. They were impressed with my work and conclusions. They would refer me to other law firms for professional witness jobs because I was so effective.
However, knowing that Karl will anonymously harvest my documents and disclose confidential information, they can't hire me because it is too risky. Karl cannot respect that some confidential information must remain confidential sometimes, and he is the arbiter of what needs to be public information.
Karl Calls the Police
I was sitting in my office in 2018, working. The phone rings. It is the university police. They are downstairs and "want to have a word" with me.
They asked me about who I was harassing online, and that they got a complaint that I was hassling someone. I had no idea what they were talking about.
I figured they were talking about Michael Balter, the guy that freely distributed my retirement account, bank account and other personal info, as well as advertised me as a spouse abuser.
But they said the complaint was from California. Still no idea.
The police guy breathed a heavy sigh and reluctantly called his dispatcher to get more information.
"Karl Haro von Mogel," the speaker blurted.
My response with great relief, "Oh, that f^*@&ing guy."
He had called the police telling them that I was harassing him online, and at the time I can't even recall the last time I interacted with him. I've had him blocked, muted and shut out for months.
There was no police report, no notes, nothing. Just using the police to harass me at work. They just told me to "Ignore that guy" which is what I was doing.
The 39-Page Complaint
I first learned of Karl's complaint to the university on 5/19/2021 in Paul Thacker's article. I was amazed. Karl assembled a thirty-nine page complaint, sent to my dean, accusing me of endless impropriety. I never heard or saw anything about it prior to it being posted by Thacker.
The most disturbing part of this tome is that it mentions that I threatened him, over and over again. Read it. There are no threats.
I did clearly state that we needed to complete the work. I did clearly state that I needed to understand how my personal property and confidential information was being posted online, and that we'd have that discussion privately or very publicly.
That's not a threat. That is a statement of how a situation will be played out, and the choice was his.
I won't go into the details of his claims. But after all of the other harassment of my university, harassing me through conferences, my wife's attorney, etc.... a 39 page letter to my university's administration?
But now I have become his sick obsession. To send a 39-page package of allegations to my university administration is insane. I hope after reading this you look hard at what he considers to be "threats". I simply suggested that there were consequences for his defamation attempts, which is true.
Instead of calling in those they disagree with and enjoy a personal discussion to sort things out, they resort to anonymous FOIA, then public shaming of their targets. The secret letters to my superiors is a real problem too, as if he's making allegations he should at least carbon-copy me on the correspondence. That's just professional courtesy.
Thursday, April 15, 2021
Wolves in sheep's clothing? It is an interesting question because I've never seen a sheep wearing clothes. I guess what it really means is that if a wolf could skin a sheep and wear the wool to basically be a trojan horse. Something like Silence of the Lambs.
I've always suspected that a number of apparent "good guys" of consumer advocacy are really just anti-biotechnology interests. Their recent activities have confirmed my suspicions.
Over the years I have watch the Organic Consumers Association and the Center for Food Safety rail against biotechnology as it applied to crops. They falsify evidence, bend the truth, and vilify scientists. You can go to their pages and read that I'm a booze-swillin', wife-beatin', child harassin', drunk-drivin' a-hole that is paid by Monsanto to lie about science.
Because I teach science.
Now that their nemesis Monsanto is no longer a thing, these groups must be falling on hard times. Their most recent targets? Biotech mosquitoes.
The genetically engineered mosquitoes by Oxitec are a modern version of sterile insect technique, a method to rapidly suppress mosquito numbers that has been used for over half a century. Its modern form is much more precise. Briefly, male mosquitoes contain a larvae-lethal gene. The gene is turned off in the lab, but then it is activated upon release. The males mate with local female pests, and the next generation of larvae are inviable. Mosquito populations crash. The target is a non-native invasive mosquito so it poses no threat to natural ecosystems.
These disease-transmitting mosquitoes are clearly the most lethal animal on the planet. With Zika, Dengue, chikungunya, malaria and other mosquito-borne diseases on the rise, these tools could have great human health implications. They are to be released in the Florida Keys shortly.
Now technically birds eat mosquitoes, so the Center for (Bird) Food Safety might have a point. But the Organic Consumers Association? I haven't been to Whole Foods in a long time, but maybe they are selling mosquito larvae for $40 a pound.
Not to be outdone, the Center for Food Safety also is in the anti-biotech mosquito game. Recently they were bragging about their new billboard on Twitter. Yes, the Center for Food Safety spends their budget on expensive billboards that oppose human health initiatives.
In social media, OCA has bots that spam the interwebs, blasting a common, repeated message over and over again. The goal? To make it look like there is widespread concern about a safe and effective strategy to limit numbers of disease-causing mosquitoes.
Tuesday, March 23, 2021
A safe and effective vaccine has been developed to meet a public health threat, in months instead of a decade. It is the amazing confluence of molecular biology, medicine, and and influx of money, all colliding to install community immunity to a highly transmissible and potentially harmful virus.
I receive my first shot today, the Moderna mRNA vaccine. I'll get it today at 5:40 pm at the Publix grocery store on 91st Street.
For most this event marks the end of a threat to health, the potential to maybe rejoin others and life returning to normal.
But to me it means something more. It is another gorgeous application of a technology I have studied for almost a lifetime.
I first learned of recombinant DNA technology in 1977. I was 10. The concept was always intriguing. It was amazing that we could potentially fix medical problems, correct genetic errors, enhance traits in plants.... simply my adjusting the basic instructions in the molecular blueprint.
I get the shot in an hour and my sleeve has been rolled up all day. I have been waiting for this opportunity to protect my community, colleagues and family.
For the next 44 years I'd study the molecular basis of life, and today teach these concepts to students in class and in the lab. For six years I have hosted a popular weekly podcast on biotechnology. I have taught these concepts in the public square, in front of angry protesting audiences, and in online forums, sometimes leading to responses of defamation, threats, and situations requiring police protection.
If you don't believe I have paid a price for teaching science, just do a Google Images search of my name.
Today I get to receive the gift of this amazing technology. It is technology that I have fought and suffered for, and paid great prices personally and professionally to advance.
My guess is that I'll drop a few tears when I get the jab, and not because it hurts, but because it heals.
And I'll drop a few more when it can reach the most desperate and needy in the world in other forms, with medical care and food security. We live in amazing times with beautiful technology, and maybe the silver lining of the pandemic is that new technology will gain acceptance into its proper place in improving the human condition.
Wednesday, February 24, 2021
One of the joys of publishing a scientific manuscript is the correspondence from the journal that the paper has finally been accepted. Peer review and high journal standards are a slow and deliberate maze to navigate that stand in the way of sharing your prized work.
There is one monumental publication in the hundred plus I’ve authored where the research, writing and review processes became a delicate managerial dance between negotiation, combat, finesse, psychology, and arm twisting. This week we celebrate its 10 year birthday, with two sturdy gin and tonics for every piece of birthday cake.
The publication of the woodland strawberry genome in February of 2011 was the culmination of efforts from at least 77 scientists. It was a battle from the beginning, and story that few people know and the rest tried to forget. Somehow I became the manager of the project, so the successes and frustrations are still a little fresh even after a decade.
The genome sequenced was not that belonging to the big red commercial strawberry. It was its relative, a tiny yellow-fruited cousin that shared similar genetic makeup. It was a great choice to sequence. In 2007 at the Plant-Animal Genome Meeting in San Diego, CA there were only several key species sequenced—things like rice, and the model plant Arabidopsis thaliana. Strawberry was a good choice to add to that rarified group. It was the red-fruited weirdo of the rose family, a group of plants containing apples, pears, peaches, blackberries and, well, roses. We knew the woodland strawberry’s simple genome was tiny, and likely didn’t contain much repetitive DNA, a problem that still confounds genome assembly efforts.
But as usual, politics wrecks everything. While there were many merits in obtaining strawberry sequence, there were vocal supporters of sequencing peaches and apples, tree crops with larger genomes that didn’t have the same lab value as the readily transformable and diminutive diploid strawberry. Other crops obtained funding and support from federal agencies and international bodies. We had a dumb little plant.
Six strawberry scientists huddled in the best privacy we could find at a conference, sitting on folding chairs behind a faux wall room divider in the lobby. How would we do it? How would we pay for it? The best we could do is pass the hat, get the ball rolling, and see if we could recruit additional experts to make it happen.
The effort took off like cold molasses. A few bucks here and there, some support from institutions like Virginia Tech and the University of Florida. National strawberry organizations wanted nothing to do with it, despite a genomes immense value to breeding. Nor did the companies that would one day mine the data for every last nugget of value. It was frustrating. The deepest pockets that could make this a drop-in-the-bucket effort saw no value. Eventually they would contribute.
The beginning-beginning was gorgeous. I purified genomic DNA using an old-school technique, a cesium chloride gradient. The snotty threads of life were as white as unviolated snow, and that few micrograms of perfect starting material would seed the effort.
To make a long story less long, that virgin DNA blob would be squeezed, interrogated and processed for information, trickling in a little at a time, all being assembled into longer threads as best could be done at the time. Eventually Roche/454 would join the effort, providing significant sequence at low cost, simply to prove they could do more than bacterial genomes. Additional experts joined the party, each lending their skills to unraveling part of the mystery. Soon, little stretches of information piled up, it became obvious that we were a few obligatory Venn diagrams away from submitting a draft genome sequence for publication.
The activities in that paragraph spanned 2008 and 2009, with bi-weekly phone calls that grew less and less enthusiastic with time. I can only thank my lucky stars that Zoom calls were still lost somewhere in the future.
As time went on the calls grew shorter and had fewer participants. Other genomes were being sequenced, had funding support, and were executed by teams of scientists whose full-time job was working on a genome. The diploid strawberry effort had no central funding source, so everything done was on donated time and materials.
It was really the efforts of Dr. Daniel J. Sargent that pushed this effort over the top. He undertook a massive campaign to understand the spatial relationships between DNA ‘markers’, little signatures that were present on the different stretches of DNA that were sequenced. That information allowed the pieces to be put together in the right order and orientation. That was the key, as Dan’s data allowed the piñata to be built so that other scientists could beat it and pick up some candy.
Other prominent figures on the author team vanished. No contact, no participation. Gone. Others played major roles and I felt were not appropriately credited. Authorship order can be a delicate issue. Dr. Daniel J. Sargent should have been first author, as his efforts and ingenuity provided the data to elevate a skeletal work to near-publication form.
The original manuscript was written by a team, and it read like a string of personal spins on the data each felt was most important. The manuscript was probably 400% too long, and the few standing as an author team were divided on where to send it. While I wanted it anywhere and done fast, others demanded it be shopped to one of the prominent weekly science journals.
We sent it to Science, we sent it to Nature. Reject, reject. Another few months burned from revision and submission. At the time there were probably six or seven genomes published, including apple, so strawberry was looking like the really cool guy that got to the party right when everyone else was leaving.
Rejection, burnout, and being sick of a project that was becoming less and less significant scientifically led most of the team to disconnect. The bi-weekly conference calls consisted of me and maybe another person talking about a chili recipe, if they were not cancelled altogether.
It needed one last push. I started with an almost blank sheet and smashed the author team’s clunky manuscript into the tight template for Nature Genetics. It was the middle of 2010, three years after a tiny team of strawberry scientists decided to start the ball rolling.
The next months were a cycle of review and revise, review and revise. Tweak, crunch, edit, chop. I remember those nights thinking that I should also punt this project as so many others clearly did. But there was maybe a light at the end of the tunnel, and after round after round of revision we were close.
I remember fielding at least a dozen calls with the Associate Editor, as she kept finding problems and generating requests from reviewers and other editors. I dreaded the conversations, as each request for more data, reformatting, additional experiments were going to sink the project.
Somehow I navigated that maze with a skillful persuasion and dumb luck. The work would eventually find acceptance at Nature Genetics, a decent journal where it fit quite nicely. The Editor relayed the good news that the work would be published in February of 2011. It was November of 2010, so it seemed a million years away.
There were a few things that made this accomplishment unique, aspects that were largely unappreciated.
It was published in the same issue as the cacao genome, the 12th and 13th plant genomes sequenced. Here in 2021 there are literally tens of thousands of plant genome sequences known. What took $350,000 and three years then can now almost be accomplished in a few days for a few thousand dollars.
It was assembled without a physical map. Knowing where genes or DNA sequences are located relative to one another helps put the little smudges of DNA sequence data in the right order and orientation. The strawberry genome did not have this guiding luxury as other crops did, and Dan Sargent’s efforts made it possible to assemble strictly from short reads. Later the panda genome would also be assembled from short reads with quite a bit more fanfare. Pandas are cute.
There were no relevant reference maps. Today genome assembly is less taxing because of the wealth of information that already exists. It is easy to draw a map of the USA because everyone from settlers to satellites has already defined where the parts belong. The strawberry genome sequence was a pioneer.
It was done without a centralized funding source. The work was done on a shoestring, digging in science’s couch cushions to capture enough scratch to push out more data.
Overall, it was a great experience to work with experts and learn a lot about how the tools of genome sequence assembly and analysis work. Soon after I would move into university administration and forgot everything I knew.
But I didn’t forget that phone call, the news that the work was finally accepted.
And I won’t forget the efforts of the scientists that really made it possible, as there were a few key players that carried the vast majority of the weight. You know who you are. Pat yourself on the back and celebrate, as your efforts allowed this seminal discovery to be translated to the commercial crop, and eventually influence genetic improvement efforts. And that was our ultimately mission all along.
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