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Atomic Gardens, the Biotechnology of the Past, Can Teach Lessons About the Future of Farming

• Rebecca Boyle via

One look at the wedge-shaped rows of plants and anyone could tell the circular garden was not grown under normal conditions. Plants sown in concentric circles displayed wildly different vitality and viability.

The innermost circle of plants, gathered around a central pole, were dead; slightly farther away, the plants were stunted and tumor-ridden; and past that, the plants may have looked right, but possessed strange new mutations.

It was the latter part of the archetypal “gamma garden” that most interested plant researchers in the 1950s and 1960s. The central pole contained a radioactive source, commonly cobalt-60, so that scientists could see how the gamma rays affected plants.

Before scientists learned how to modify genes, they induced mutations with radiation. It was a sincere effort to feed the world, and amaze home gardeners, by modifying plants to have desirable traits.
Nanotechnologist Paige Johnson shares the history of atomic gardening on her blog, Garden History Girl. Writer Alexander Trevi interviewed Johnson for his own blog, Pruned.

“If we think of modern GM as taking a scalpel to the genome, mutation breeding by irradiation was a hammer,” she says. The full interview is well worth a read; click through to it here.

It’s an interesting tale in light of radiation and food safety concerns after the Japanese nuclear disaster. But there are also some interesting parallels between atomic gardening and 21st-century biotechnology, which also promises to feed the world by modifying plants to have new traits. The promises, and the controversies, feel very familiar.

Back in the 1960s, scientists bombarded plants with gamma radiation hoping to see beneficial changes in the plants’ structure and yield. Advocates included entrepreneur C.J. Speas and Englishwoman Muriel Howorth, who started the Atomic Gardening Society to promote mutated varieties. Johnson describes a dinner party in which Howorth served “NC 4x,” North Carolina 4th generation X-rayed peanuts that were produced from seeds exposed to 18,500 roentgen units of X-rays. After the party, Howorth planted the irradiated seeds and they grew like magic beanstalks.


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