Atomic gardens
April 20, 2011 10:00 AM   Subscribe

Paige Johnson works as a nanotechnology researcher at the University of Tulsa, Oklahoma. [...] Her current landscape research is focused on the strange and fascinating story of atomic gardening, a post-war phenomenon in which plants were irradiated in the hopes of producing beneficial mutations.
Pruned talks to Paige Johnson about atomic gardens.
posted by shakespeherian (21 comments total) 19 users marked this as a favorite

I believe this is/was one of the main thrusts of the Chinese space program: sending seeds up into space in hopes of acquiring beneficial mutations.
posted by StickyCarpet at 10:29 AM on April 20, 2011

It seems, from the article, at least some variants are still around.. A grape fruit variety and mint cultivar are called out.. Was/is there a list of other ones that Paige found that are still in production ?

(and the curious part of me wonders where such cultivars fall in the GM/no-GM debate, which Paige seems to brush off..)
posted by k5.user at 10:34 AM on April 20, 2011

It tastes like Grandma!
posted by furiousxgeorge at 10:52 AM on April 20, 2011

Lest we forget, this concept was central to a play/movie from the '70s, The Effect of Gammay Rays on Man-in-the-Moon Marigolds.
posted by Sublimity at 10:56 AM on April 20, 2011

Wow, and I thought it was just a Bad Religion song.
posted by JoanArkham at 10:57 AM on April 20, 2011 [3 favorites]

I believe this is/was one of the main thrusts of the Chinese space program: sending seeds up into space in hopes of acquiring beneficial mutations.

Mild propaganda, probably. A Co60 source is cheaper than a launch.
posted by sebastienbailard at 11:02 AM on April 20, 2011 [2 favorites]

Interesting post, thanks. I wonder how successful this approach was, on the whole - 2 cultivars were good enough to plant commercially (that we know of), but what happened to the others? Still out there but their story has been lost, or did they disappear for some reason?

Also, my plant genetics is pretty rusty, but don't a lot of hybrids not breed true? (F1 hybrids) If something similar occurred with these "atomic varieties", you'd probably never* get a stable cultivar that could be grown and propagated commercially, since the parent generation was produced totally randomly by a passing gamma ray.

*For values of "never" close to 2.
posted by Quietgal at 12:04 PM on April 20, 2011

I'm a bit of a contrarian thinker. So I tend to not worry so much about issues that are being debated—like, say, oil, or even GM crops—as about the debates we aren't having.

This is one thing that drives me crazy, that is often lost when we talk about nuclear/atomic research - there is an enormous difference between applying radiation to something and applying radioactive material to something. In the former case you get the plants described above, you get microwaves, you get x-ray imaging, etcetera. In the latter case you get radioactive isotopes of elements such as iodine, cesium, strontium, plutonium etc which bioaccumulate in natural systems and cause terrible cancers higher in the food chain (eg. us). It's this material's potential to linger and irradiate continuously for days, weeks, months or even years which makes it so dangerous.

The sad fact is that very legitimate fears of weaponized nuclear technology (U-235 reactors, bombs, et al) have come to define all nuclear technology but they are a tiny fraction of the field. A major fault of the nuclear debate in which we are currently engaged (which is, all told, a very good thing) is that we are not discussing how the primary function of these failing reactors was always to make weapons to kill people, and that there are whole classes of other, safer reactors which were ignored due to the Cold War. Japan is no exception here - the reason why GE built all those reactors there was so they could produce plutonium that they were required to transfer back to the USA for armament purposes. Japan was not permitted to hold plutonium stock until the 90s.

Heck, there are crazier technologies than just peaceful nuclear reactor research that have also been sidelined in this manner; the "atomic gardens" above and this post awhile back about microwave heating. (As an aside, you won't believe how many cold war kids I know who absolutely refuse to own a microwave for "health reasons.") I do suspect that atomic gardening is a wildly inefficient means for producing beneficial mutations as opposed to traditional (or newer biotech) methods, resulting entirely from heavy subsidization of the nuclear industry. It's still awesome, though, and clearly illustrates our collective amnesia on the subject of nuclear technology.
posted by mek at 12:11 PM on April 20, 2011 [2 favorites]

Quietgal, breeding true was indeed a big problem here - the irradiation produces a "grab bag" of genetic material in the seeds, and then the seeds were sold without guarantee to hobby gardeners with the goal that they would breed the plants for several generations and select useful results. Some of the linked seed packaging describes this in detail.
posted by mek at 12:14 PM on April 20, 2011

"Sickness flowed / Crept insidious and slow / Leaving just the afterglow / Of atomic roses."
posted by infinitywaltz at 12:31 PM on April 20, 2011 [1 favorite]

Mek, that makes sense - get hobbyists to do the grunt work for free ;-)
posted by Quietgal at 2:03 PM on April 20, 2011

Have they developed tomacco yet?
posted by snofoam at 3:49 PM on April 20, 2011

quietgal, i hear most of the wheat grown in italy now comes from a strain that was produced by gamma ray irradiation -- so called creso durum wheat if you want to look it up.
posted by 3mendo at 4:54 PM on April 20, 2011

there are whole classes of other, safer reactors which were ignored due to the Cold War.

mek is this the Thorium or the Boiling Water (BWR) type reactor you're referring to? I've heard this mentioned before but can't quite remember. PS Go atomic seeds!
posted by yoHighness at 12:31 AM on April 21, 2011

The problem is a little more structural than the design of any one particular reactor - rather that the entire design goal was to produce "breeder reactors" which would primarily enrich uranium for weaponization, and therefore all funding and research was devoted to achieving that goal with safety and energy efficiency as secondary and tertiary concerns. Projects like atomic gardens had two functions: one, they put a pretty and peaceful face on a military project. Two, they turned nuclear waste into a subject of further research.

Thorium was the other major reactor type that was promising in the early 60s. We didn't go down that path, specifically because these types of reactors were much less productive of weaponizable uranium/plutonium than BWRs were. (That's exactly why thorium etc is more appealing now, of course. "Proliferation resistant" and less toxic output.) BWRs are the Fukushima-style reactors which are everywhere and produce large quantities of plutonium. Nowadays there are many different non-weaponizable and much safer nuclear technologies which are being researched and developed, but few of them are ready for commercial applications. (Check out the Gen IV reactor article on wikipedia.) Of course, one of the major downsides to these technologies is that they aren't massively subsidized by the military-industrial complex. One of the great tragedies of the Cold War is that the development of nuclear technology for civilian purposes was arrested for so long by the pursuit of ever-greater plutonium reserves. Oh well, at least we got ruby red grapefruits. I do love me some o those.
posted by mek at 1:25 AM on April 21, 2011 [1 favorite]

I wasn't making a point, floam. My boss had dropped something in recent conversation along the lines of much safer reactor technology existing in concept - but not in reality, because that couldn't be weaponised as easily. When mek mentioned this I did a bit of web searching and it seemed I'd have to read up on a lot of reactor tech before I'd get the comment, so I thought I'd ask a question. mek, thank you for the comprehensive answer! I'll return y'all to the scheduled discussion of atomic gardening. Thanks again!
posted by yoHighness at 10:01 AM on April 21, 2011 [1 favorite]

I remember seeing pictures of the results of flowers which were grown from irradiated seeds, pansies which had stripes and were really kind of cute. Seems like the plants had all sorts of interesting mutations. Personally, I like regular plants just fine.
posted by Katjusa Roquette at 1:01 AM on April 22, 2011

"It's easy to look back at it all as some crazy, or conspiratorial, plot. But the atomic gardens weren't a secret. They've just been forgotten . . .

Irradiating crops and screening for beneficial mutations doesn't sound very crazy to me; after all, the IAEA and FAO still run a joint plant breeding and genetics programme "using radiation induced mutation and efficiency enhancing biotechnologies such as in vitro techniques, molecular markers and genomics".
posted by James Scott-Brown at 9:58 AM on April 22, 2011 [1 favorite]

I saw some of those originally radiated petunias at a place that sells plants today and thought of this post and the place I first saw pictures of these appealing little plants. it is strange how many effects of radiation are harmless or beneficial in plants, but not so beneficial for animals.
posted by Katjusa Roquette at 8:50 PM on April 22, 2011

Further discussion at Edible Geography, pointing out that 'atomic gardening is alive and well today' and 'radiation breeding is actually experiencing a renaissance'.
posted by verstegan at 3:21 PM on April 25, 2011

« Older Like a drag queen's acid nightmare   |   Happy Swamp Rabbit Day! Newer »

This thread has been archived and is closed to new comments