Superweeds

Superweeds

“I’ve never been trained as an evolutionary biologist — you know, formally — but basically, what I feel like I try to do in my career is try to stop evolution,” Pat Tranel, a crop scientist says. “And it’s a pretty powerful force. It’s pretty hard to stop.”

                                                                ~ H. Claire Brown

We’ve all seen the movie. Some scientist is tinkering alone in his lab late one night. It’s shadowy and there’s ominous music in the background. He adjusts the chemical feed into the small cage, makes a note in his lab book, then puts his head down on the counter and falls asleep. Something in the cage moves, then seems to grow. Tendrils form and move quietly across the counter. The scientist doesn’t stir …

… Suddenly there’s a scream! …

These movies reflect our complicated relationship with science. It seems every ‘giant leap’ for mankind carries some unexpected downside. Mostly these are minor, easily addressed issues that can be resolved and accommodated, just like the list of possible reactions or side effects from the prescription drug ads on tv. It seems to me that a lot of the current resistance to science may have come from the beginnings of the “atomic age”, when we developed nuclear weapons alongside nuclear power. (The movie script possibilities were endless — from giant ants to giant lizards to hulking green men.)

Therefore, it should be no surprise that our amazing ability to control our environment (“Better living through chemistry”) with fertilizers, pesticides and herbicides has downsides, too. Food writer H. Claire Brown reports, “If there’s a plant perfectly suited to outcompete the farmers, researchers and chemical companies that collectively define industrial American agriculture, it’s Palmer amaranth. This pigweed (a catchall term that includes some plants in the amaranth family) can re-root itself after being yanked from the ground. It can grow three inches a day. And it has evolved resistance to many of the most common weed killers … Unchecked, Palmer amaranth can suppress soybean yields by nearly 80 percent and corn yields by about 90 percent …”

“For some, the onset of metabolic resistance … (their cells contained enzymes that were attacking the weed killers as soon as they passed through the cell’s plasma membrane) … marks the real dawn of the age of superweeds. ‘I hate to use the ‘superweed’ term, but you know, these are more superweeds than the Roundup-​resistant weeds when they were called superweeds,’ says Pat Tranel, a crop scientist at the University of Illinois. ‘Those were pretty easy.’”

And so it begins, just like in the movies — scientists work tirelessly to find the solution to the problem they have created. Meanwhile the mutants flourish and terrorize small towns, converging slowly on the metro areas …

This time around, our scientists are finding ways to battle the “superweeds” that sound like they came from the movies. “Duke mentions ongoing efforts to build a tractor attachment that can shoot microwaves at the ground. He’s also heard of a system that zaps individual weeds with an electric charge. An Israel-based start-up has begun testing the release of sterilized pollen into Palmer-infested fields …” In Australia, fighting the weeds with fire is being tried. “A similar technique called flame-weeding, which involves outfitting tractors with blowtorches, is still a little too volatile for widespread adoption in the United States.”

“In the long term, herbicide-resistant weeds are likely to drive up food prices, says Lee Van Wychen, science policy director at the Weed Science Society of America. More expensive corn and soy mean more expensive animal feed, which means more expensive meat.”

Meanwhile, back at the lab, the scientist stops screaming and raises his head to the camera. His face has been engulfed by a brown furry mask that wriggles and grows with every second.

Nothing is safe from MegaHamster!

Additional information:

H. Claire Brown, Attack of the Superweeds, Aug. 18, 2021, New York Times Magazine

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