Gird up your loins, folks, this is going to be a long one! That dread admixture of too many ‘ideas’ and the lack of a decent (or, indeed, any) editor. Those who print out my words to provide a permanent record (and who wouldn’t? It allows them to be enjoyed even when denied power or internet access) may wish to check their ink levels and refill the paper tray.
In an earlier series of The Infinite Monkey Cage, there was some discussion as to whether a strawberry (the fruit, rather than the plant) was alive or dead. Some might think that this debate highlights fundamental difficulties in our definition of life. I prefer to take it as concrete proof that strawberries (and by extension other fruit and nuts et al) are members of the undead. They are generally too solid to be ghosts and too colourful to be vampiric. No, being slow moving and with a tendency to rot, fruit are clearly zombies. Can it be a coincidence that nature has placed so many fruit and nuts in the high branches of trees? From this vantage, they are able to fall on any passing human and – with a little good fortune – crack open a skull and feast on the sweet, sweet brains that lie within. Sir Isaac Newton may have thought he discovered gravity ‘neath that famous apple tree, but in fact he failed to discover his true peril and had a lucky escape as the apple tried to satisfy its craving for his cranial contents. I, for one, do not plan to be caught napping in an orchard!
This identification of many of the products of the plant kingdom as being clear precursors to the zombie apocalypse came about during one of my wide-ranging massage discussions (so much more fun as a background than pan-pipes or whale ‘music’). This started with the extraordinary ability of plants to crack concrete. How can a tiny seed, with only very limited energy stores available until it can put forth leaves, manage to cast asunder man’s apparently solid works? Surely, we mused, this ability should be of use to the military? Rather than dropping massive bombs to disrupt enemy infrastructure with the substantial cost in innocent bloodshed that so often entails, could we not just drop suitable seeds and wait? No bunker or runway would be safe.
This use of seeds in warfare made me wonder about the soi-disant ‘war on drugs’, aka our government’s attempts to ensure that the drugs trade stays both profitable and a public menace. I believe fire and herbicides have been used in the attempt to destroy fields of drug-producing plants – but this approach will only take out the current crop. How about dropping seeds of Japanese knot weed or some other suitably invasive species? This could destroy the crop for years to come. I can only assume that the MoD and military boast very few gardeners or the possibilities would have been seen years ago.
With my plans for plant-based warfare, we will be able to say goodbye and good riddance to BAE systems and mass civilian casualties and hello to a huge boost in funding for the good folk at Kew. In the future, boys (and girls – though I suspect they still remain a minority in this area) will no longer play with guns but with seed tray and dibber. War will no longer rely on speed of deployment, but on patient propagation: the green of camouflage will be replaced by that of thumbs and fingers.
But why stop with the plants that nature has provided? With GM technology, the plant kingdom can make a much bigger contribution to our lives. Current GM seems to be concentrated on rather boring and prosaic attempts to add immunity to herbicides or to repel insects from a few key food crops. This has failed to capture the public imagination, but has rather created entrenched resistance and derogatory terms like ‘Frankenfood’. If Mary Shelley’s professor had stuck with such tedious advances, his monster would not still be lending its creator’s name to concepts in the twenty-first century. I posit that GM needs to embrace its inner mad scientist, recruit more lab technicians called Igor and make far better use of the convectional storms that climate change promises. Harness some lightning and give the public what they are crying out for: a little excitement! How can wheat that is slightly distasteful to a lab-bound greenfly ever hope to compete with the LHC or holiday snaps from Pluto?
During my massage (and subsequently), a number of ideas for more exciting plant-based GM projects came to mind and I offer these free-of-charge to any UK lab brave enough to take them on. My massage therapist seemed very keen on giant fruit and veg (though he further emphasised the importance of the size by adjectival use of a vulgar term for a gene flow event, e.g. giant GFEing avocados) for reasons that are not entirely clear (possibly some hitherto unrevealed northern, working-class heritage?). Scotch eggs – or other meat-based products – that grew on trees were also proposed, which would really confuse the vegetarians and vegans among us. In a similar thematic area, I quite like the idea of allowing root vegetables to scream when they are pulled from the ground (as myth would insist the mandrake does, though without the associated deaths) – if only to save vegans from being suffocated by their own smugness. What about a pasty bush? Think how easily the public could hit their five-a-day with such a botanic marvel. I also fancy the idea of splicing the genes from a poet into Citrus x sinensis to produce an orange that rhymes. How about an anti-banana that causes any fruit with which it shares a vessel to grow less ripe? Such an ethyne sink could also be a boon to the home welder. Failing that, how about a pear that is ripe and edible for more than 40 minutes? Let’s have a real-life version of Ms Rowling’s Whomping Willow which rather than attacking trainee wizards instead purges biting insects from its vicinity? The Scots are crying out for such an arboreal exterminator. Why not replace street lighting with trees that glow in the dark? (They’ve done it with mice – why not leaves or needles? How beautiful our boulevards and thoroughfares would be.) The possibilities are endless!
Botanists have been resting on their laurels (and many another plant) for far too long! No lay person is ever going to be that excited by arabidopsis – but a cabbage that eats white fly would be the talk of Gardeners’ Question Time for years to come. Let the CRISPR see the salad and let’s build the public some exciting vegetables, some freaky fruit! It’s time to make Victor proud and have some real Frankenfoods: people will be taking to the streets demanding more GM in no time (well, assuming our new vegetable masters allow us the time off).