It began with one
corn field in the middle of Ohio. A strange type of armyworm had been eating
corn leaves. Hank Ercheeph, a farmer, had seen the pest before but
never with the corn hybrids he was now using. He remembered when
he had bought the new corn seeds, it had promised "built-in pest protection."
So why had it stopped working? In early 2000, the Agriculture Research
Center (ARC) had been hopeful. "Recently, the scientists determined
that the gene they seek is Mir1, responsible for making the protein 33kD
cysteine proteinase. When hungry armyworms munch corn leaves and
ingest the protein, they may stop growing or starve. The scientists
hope to insert the protein-making gene into susceptible corn hybrids or
other crops that are the targets of hungry armyworms and other destructive
caterpillar pests," a news release had said. And the scientists had
come through. This revolutionary corn hybrid was used in almost all
the corn fields across America. Hank called another local farmer
with a neighboring field. He, too, had noticed the problem. Troubled, Hank
alerted the USDA. Apparently it was not only those two fields-- and even
worse, not only Ohio. Two researchers within the Midwest branch of the
ARC were put on alert. Dr. S. Pinach and Dr. Zookeeni met to discuss
"God damn it,
this is serious, Zookeeni. I've never seen armyworms eat corn leaves so
fast. Too bad toxaphene insecticide is illegal in so many states,
that stuff might have controlled the larvae," said Dr. Pinach, "What are
we going to do?"
"We could call
the Gainsville ARC," replied Dr. Zookeeni, "Aren't they working on a chemical
that will kill the larvae?"
even close to being ready to release it-- no, that won't work."
"We could try
to get that Bacillus thuringiensis spray that Ecogen created-- that would
probably destroy the suckers," Dr. Zookeeni suggested.
"But we would
have to spray it on all the corn fields from the Atlantic up to the Rocky
Mountains. Imagine what that insecticide in such large quantities
would do to the environment, that'll be the problem with using any pathogen
in this situation."
The two researchers
spent the rest of the evening, late into the night exploring possible ways
of curbing the armyworm. But it was to no avail, the armyworm was
moving too fast. The ARC could not figure out why 33kD cysteine proteinase
had no effect on the armyworms, perhaps a mutation had occurred, making
the protein ineffective. Later that week the two researchers met
again. With grim faces they looked at each other. Dr. S. Pinach cleared
Zookeeni-- there are only a few crops remaining."
"I can't believe
the President called this a National Disaster," Dr. Zookeeni said.
"God, can you
imagine what this means for the country's economy?" Dr. S. Pinach replied.
"What are we
going to do?"
"There is nothing
we can do about this year's crop, it's futile at this point," Dr. S. Pinach
"But it will
attack next year's crop too-- corn prices are going to skyrocket."
will just have to find new seeds-- and you can bet that if corn prices
go up, pesticide prices will go up too-- and of course pesticides will
be healthy... ...Wait...why didn't I think of this before?" Dr. S.
Pinach said, " The National Seed Storage Laboratory."
"In Fort Collins,
Colorado? Dr. Zookeeni asked, "No you mean the National Germplasm Resources
Laboratory-- to make new hybrids."
know that they can't just produce hybrids like that-- the worms will still
eat the plants, it could take years to find one that would work. No, I
really do mean the NSSL, they have over 8,500 species of seeds in their
banks- there must be some corn plant that is resistant to this new armyworm."
"At this point
it's worth a call at least. I'll do it right now," Dr. S. Pinach said as
he picked up the phone and asked his secretary to place the call.
It began ringing. After ten rings, Dr. S. Pinach looked up at Dr. Zookeeni.
"I don't think
anyone's there, maybe they aren't open."
"Hell, it's eleven
in the morning on a Thursday, where would they--"
"Hold on, someone
"NSSL, may I
help you?" a man asked in a breathless voice.
"Hello, I am
calling from the Midwest branch of the ARC, may I please speak to the director
of the Laboratory?" Dr. S. Pinach asked.
"This is he,"
responded the voice.
"Oh hello, I
didn't realize my secretary called your private line."
"This is the
main line, I am afraid that there is no secretary right now, we are a bit
understaffed," the director said, "I have to manage the phone right now."
"I am sorry to
hear that, I am Stuart Pinach, a researcher with ARS and I was hoping you
could help us. I am sure that you are well aware of the emergency
facing the country's corn plants. Would it be possible to begin testing
to find seeds that would be resistance to the this particular armyworm."
There was a long silence on the other end of the line.
"I am sorry,
but at this point the NSSL is just a building full of decaying seeds, the
last executive administration didn't care greatly for the nation's seeds
and the meager appropriations that we were receiving have been reduced
even more. Why do you think there is no secretary-- we are cutting corners
wherever we can, anything."
"I am sorry to
hear that...uhm...what if we brought in our own team?" Dr. S. Pinach asked.
"You can if you
want but it won't do any good, most of the seeds are dead anyway, and many
are just piled in cardboard boxes, it would take you years to find anything,"
the director said. "You might try going to other countries, Mexico's seedbank
is pretty good, they might have something, hey mention that you came here
first, that'll give em' a laugh, we're the joke of the international seedbank
you, I wish you luck," Dr. S. Pinach said.
"Humph, now the
country, and that government will realize just how important the NSSL was,"
the director muttered.
"Uhm, yes, good-bye,"
Dr. S. Pinach said, quietly he hung up the phone. All he and Dr. Zookeeni
could do was look at each other.
This is a fictional story of the future-- but remember if we don't start
acknowledging the importance of preserving seeds it may become reality.
Source consulted for scientific information:: "Crops Diseases and Pests"
by W. Paul Williams (January 28, 1997) from Agriculture
Picture from "The Maize Page" of Iowa State University