Tuesday, May 4, 2010

A bit of a rant about "science" in gardening


I  say "science", because what I'm referring to here is the misuse of scientific language in disseminations produced by two of this nations favourite gardening institutions. Gardening institutions that should, perhaps, know better. Whatever I might pretend in this space most of the time, I'm a scientist in my day job and my love of gardening is essentially linked to by love of biology and biochemistry. I like watching things grow and understanding that process - I get a kick out of it. I am a science geek and usually, when I'm not dealing with writing my thesis, I love it.

Horticulture is a science, because horticulture is essentially biology. Scientist's have a lot to answer for I know, because most of them are so poor at translating their research to the less scientifically minded public. It's an issue I'm aware of. But there is also the issue of scientific buzz words leeking out of the science bubble and getting thrown around a lot by the media, without being properly explained. The two incidents that riled me were performed by the RHS and the BBC. Given the status of both these institutions I find it unbecoming, and because this is my blog I'm going to have a good old rant about it, because I can.

First up, the RHS. One of their regular columnists, Ursula Buchan, upon bringing to her readerships attention that the pea aphid (Acyrthosiphon pisum) genome had been published in PLoS Biology, had this to say:

As even we non-scientists have come to realise, mapping a genome is an important step in making possible the modification of undesirable (to us) genes. Can it really be that I can contemplate, in my lifetime, caring for a garden with significantly reduced numbers of aphids in it? I do hope not.

Fortunately, dear Lady, I doubt it - as your statement makes no sense. Agro-pharmaceutical companies will, no doubt, try and use this information to make pea strains resistant to aphids, or a pesticide specific to aphids. Should this be successful and either of these products made it to the point of public consumption in this country, you will have the choice of whether to buy them. If you choose not to, you can happily live in your aphid infested garden non-the-wiser. Scientists modify genes in the lab, largely to try and figure out what the protein products of those genes do. Just knowing a gene and deeming it 'undesirable' does not mean it disappears - just look at all those people who still have inherited genetically transmitted disorders (a couple tip of the iceberg suggestions: Huntington's Disease and Cystic Fibrosis). Knowledge of a gene does not instantly conjure up a ray gun to obliterate it at will. And to complicate matters, those genes you're targeting are usually essential, it's just a minor mutation that's rendered them 'undesirable' - obliterating them completely would ultimately kill you outright just as effectively. Perhaps you are confusing embryo selection in IVF with 'modification of ... genes". As far as I'm aware choosing which embryo to implant does not delete the gene in question in either or both of the parents, but gives them the choice not to pass it on through the application of mendelian genetics (which, incidentally, was developed by Mendel whilst studying peas - see, I'm almost forming a nice circular narrative). Good for them. If I carried Huntington's Disease alleles I'd do the same. Unless of course you're proposing that all the embryos of the pea aphid will be screened in some way? Given their short and prolific life cycle, this seems like a complete waste of man hours...

Second up is the unfortunate Toby Buckland of Gardener's World. Toby used the peculiar phrase "the same genetic age" when referring to a basal cutting of a sedum he'd just made. This phrase means nothing in this instance. His point was that his large cutting, with lot's of leaves and roots, was likely to flower that same year. And indeed it would have the same genes because he'd effectively cloned the parent plant. That's what coning is: multiplying something whilst keeping the genome identical. His cutting had the same genome, and it had a good chance of behaving like it was a similar age to the parent, because of it's established root and leaf systems. "Genetic age" though? If he'd taken a single leaf of the sedum and made a cutting, it would still be the same age as it's "parent" - it just would take a little time to grow up and flower. A lazy and inaccurate use of terminology does not help anyone.

Rant over

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