GREEN WISDOM by Arthur W. Galston


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Just as animals' ""wise"" behavior results from the evolutionary development of favorable response patterns, says Galston, plants have developed chemical solutions to the survival problems that confront them. In an introductory plug for support for basic botanical research, he argues that studying these complicated systems can often point the way for technological expansion of our strained food and energy resources. Then, in these expertly designed short pieces--which first appeared as monthly columns in Natural History magazine--he reports on a persuasive selection of basic research findings, carefully leading lay readers from one discovery or experiment to the next, and frequently ending with reminders of their implications for the world food supply. The most dazzling sequence takes us from the creation of pathogen-resistant plant strains from a single cultured, mutated cell, to the progress of ever more sophisticated botanists engaged in stripping off cell walls through the action of the enzyme cellulase, thus exposing naked protoplasts which can be fed foreign DNA or RNA to alter their genetic structure. For hungry humans, such achievements could bring higher yielding crops, better quality proteins, disease resistance without the use of pesticides, and an extension to grains of nitrogen-fixing ability, thus eliminating the need for nitrogen fertilizer. Cloning, too, may be perfected to the point where scientists can introduce to the receptor cell only those genes or groups of genes they wish to alter. Readers suspicious of such fearsome manipulation and such trust in technological solutions may be disarmed by Galston's account of his own Frankenstein creation: his discovery of a chemical which could stimulate soybean flowering, and thus increase harvests, was used years later in the American defoliation of South Vietnam. Galston's protest to President Johnson was brushed off; but his further efforts, he believes, did result in Nixon's eventually phasing out the herbicide. Galston's conclusion: scientists can't and shouldn't avoid working on subjects that might possibly be used destructively, but they need to take a more active role in how their discoveries are used. Whatever their implications, the discoveries reported here are impressive and provocative, and Galston is a skilled interpreter whose concerns extend beyond the laboratory.

Pub Date: May 1st, 1981
Publisher: Basic Books