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"The Botany of Desire" Documentary, TONIGHT at 8pm on PBS

Update: the entire documentary is now available online for free!

A new PBS* documentary, The Botany of Desire, premieres Wednesday night (tonight!) at 8pm on PBS stations throughout the US. It's based on the popular Michael Pollan book of the same name, and I urge you to carve out two hours (in most markets between 8pm - 10pm) on Wednesday night to watch it. The program is packed with science, history, and beautiful photography.

I've seen the film in advance, and I highly recommend it, particularly if you're interested in any of the four plants featured in it: tulip, marijuana, potato, and apple. By telling the stories of these plants, Pollan explains how in some ways the plants are manipulating us, rather than the other way around -- in the same way that flowers "use" bees to spread their pollen, these plants have "used" humans to spread themselves across the planet and out-compete other plants. One note: the program may not be suitable for young children, as there is use of the word "sex" (as applied to plants) and discussion of marijuana. It also might be pretty boring for the under-twelve set (despite beautiful flower photography), unless they're thoroughly nerdy.

Here's a preview of the documentary:

After the jump, I include some notes on each plant discussed in the documentary.

The Apple - Good for Booze AND for Eatin'

Apples arose in Kazakhstan, where bears would eat them and, uh, deposit the seeds as they went. But when people entered the picture, we began to spread the apple and its sweetness. Thus, the "biological strategy" of apples is to increase their sweetness, causing us to spread them around the globe. Humans have an innate desire for sweetness -- presumably because in nature, sweetness is rare and generally denotes lots of calories.

Although the Bible doesn't specify the fruit that was at the heart of so much trouble in the Garden of Eden, we assume it to be an apple -- even though it was probably a pomegranate due to geographic restrictions on where apples grow best. Then there's the rather fascinating discussion of Johnny Appleseed, whose real motivation was to bring alcohol (via hard cider) to pioneers, rather than tasty sweet apples. (Follow the link for some more info, all snagged from Pollan's book, on the man -- he was surprisingly rich for a dude who wore a tin pot on his head.)

Tulips

Tulips are examples of angiosperms, or flowering plants. The rise of the angiosperms brought sex (via flowers and pollen exchange) into the plant picture, and as Pollan says, "sex creates variation." The documentary thoroughly explains the Dutch speculative investment bubble known as Tulip Mania, which made tulips one of the most valuable commodities in the world. At the height of Tulip Mania, a single tulip bulb sold for the equivalent of what today would be $10-15 million! Tragically, some of the most prized tulips were made beautiful because of a virus that was slowing killing them -- which caused spectacular striped or "broken" flowers, but ultimately killed the plant. Pollan suggests that the tulip's biological "strategy" has been to develop a form of beauty that humans find very appealing, causing us to domesticate and grow it even to the point of financial ruin.

Cannabis

I won't say much about this section, as this is a family blog, but I can certainly say that this program treats the topic fairly and doesn't go nuts with it. There's an interesting discussion of how THC (the main "active ingredient") binds to receptors in the human brain that affect the brain's ability to remember and forget -- and Pollan wonders exactly how a plant would find a way to manipulate those human brain receptors in order to make cannabis such a widely-propagated plant today. It is a curious question, indeed -- how would a plant manage to just "happen" to have such a profound effect on humans? Again, Pollan wonders if this is a biological "strategy" in some sense.

The documentary includes extensive footage of legal (under state laws, though not federal law) cannabis growing operations -- you get an inside look into how medical marijuana is produced, and it's surprisingly complex. My favorite line: in describing how the farmers plant only female cannabis plants so they'll produce more THC-rich resin, Pollan describes the grow room as a room of "massive sexual frustration" -- all the female plants are desperately trying to catch some male pollen, producing more and more resin in their efforts.

Potatoes

The documentary takes us to South America, showing how the descendants of the Incas are still farming potatoes, and how potatoes traveled from South America to Europe via the Spanish Conquistadores. The potato was such a hugely productive crop (more food per acre than grain) that it transformed the Old World, enabling the industrial revolution. There's also much discussion of "The Lumper," the dominant strain of potato in Ireland that happened to be susceptible to a wind-spread fungus that destroyed Lumpers, causing the terrible Potato Famine. The famine killed one out of every eight people living in Ireland. Can you imagine that? Pollan suggests that the Potato Famine is a parable about the dangers of monoculture (planting a single type of plant) -- had the Irish planted a wider variety of potatoes, they might have had more that were resistant to the fungus that killed Lumpers.

Also discussed: how the fast food industry currently relies on a monoculture of the Russet Burbank potato to make the "long fries" used in McDonald's, to fill those tall red fry boxes; how that monoculture demands lots of pesticides; and how Monsanto is developing insect-repellant crops -- and what happens with those crops over the long term.

Full Blogger Disclosure

I have received an advance screener of this documentary from PBS, but have not been compensated in any way for this post. I just like PBS and documentaries, and think this is a great program -- and the book is highly recommended as well.

* = Note that the program is presented by KQED in San Francisco and produced by Kikim Media. But to myself and y'all, that's fancy talk for "PBS."

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Penn Vet Working Dog Center
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Stones, Bones, and Wrecks
New Program Trains Dogs to Sniff Out Art Smugglers
Penn Vet Working Dog Center
Penn Vet Working Dog Center

Soon, the dogs you see sniffing out contraband at airports may not be searching for drugs or smuggled Spanish ham. They might be looking for stolen treasures.

K-9 Artifact Finders, a new collaboration between New Hampshire-based cultural heritage law firm Red Arch and the University of Pennsylvania, is training dogs to root out stolen antiquities looted from archaeological sites and museums. The dogs would be stopping them at borders before the items can be sold elsewhere on the black market.

The illegal antiquities trade nets more than $3 billion per year around the world, and trafficking hits countries dealing with ongoing conflict, like Syria and Iraq today, particularly hard. By one estimate, around half a million artifacts were stolen from museums and archaeological sites throughout Iraq between 2003 and 2005 alone. (Famously, the craft-supply chain Hobby Lobby was fined $3 million in 2017 for buying thousands of ancient artifacts looted from Iraq.) In Syria, the Islamic State has been known to loot and sell ancient artifacts including statues, jewelry, and art to fund its operations.

But the problem spans across the world. Between 2007 and 2016, U.S. Customs and Border Control discovered more than 7800 cultural artifacts in the U.S. looted from 30 different countries.

A yellow Lab sniffs a metal cage designed to train dogs on scent detection.
Penn Vet Working Dog Center

K-9 Artifact Finders is the brainchild of Rick St. Hilaire, the executive director of Red Arch. His non-profit firm researches cultural heritage property law and preservation policy, including studying archaeological site looting and antiquities trafficking. Back in 2015, St. Hilaire was reading an article about a working dog trained to sniff out electronics that was able to find USB drives, SD cards, and other data storage devices. He wondered, if dogs could be trained to identify the scents of inorganic materials that make up electronics, could they be trained to sniff out ancient pottery?

To find out, St. Hilaire tells Mental Floss, he contacted the Penn Vet Working Dog Center, a research and training center for detection dogs. In December 2017, Red Arch, the Working Dog Center, and the Penn Museum (which is providing the artifacts to train the dogs) launched K-9 Artifact Finders, and in late January 2018, the five dogs selected for the project began their training, starting with learning the distinct smell of ancient pottery.

“Our theory is, it is a porous material that’s going to have a lot more odor than, say, a metal,” says Cindy Otto, the executive director of the Penn Vet Working Dog Center and the project’s principal investigator.

As you might imagine, museum curators may not be keen on exposing fragile ancient materials to four Labrador retrievers and a German shepherd, and the Working Dog Center didn’t want to take any risks with the Penn Museum’s priceless artifacts. So instead of letting the dogs have free rein to sniff the materials themselves, the project is using cotton balls. The researchers seal the artifacts (broken shards of Syrian pottery) in airtight bags with a cotton ball for 72 hours, then ask the dogs to find the cotton balls in the lab. They’re being trained to disregard the smell of the cotton ball itself, the smell of the bag it was stored in, and ideally, the smell of modern-day pottery, eventually being able to zero in on the smell that distinguishes ancient pottery specifically.

A dog looks out over the metal "pinhweel" training mechanism.
Penn Vet Working Dog Center

“The dogs are responding well,” Otto tells Mental Floss, explaining that the training program is at the stage of "exposing them to the odor and having them recognize it.”

The dogs involved in the project were chosen for their calm-but-curious demeanors and sensitive noses (one also works as a drug-detection dog when she’s not training on pottery). They had to be motivated enough to want to hunt down the cotton balls, but not aggressive or easily distracted.

Right now, the dogs train three days a week, and will continue to work on their pottery-detection skills for the first stage of the project, which the researchers expect will last for the next nine months. Depending on how the first phase of the training goes, the researchers hope to be able to then take the dogs out into the field to see if they can find the odor of ancient pottery in real-life situations, like in suitcases, rather than in a laboratory setting. Eventually, they also hope to train the dogs on other types of objects, and perhaps even pinpoint the chemical signatures that make artifacts smell distinct.

Pottery-sniffing dogs won’t be showing up at airport customs or on shipping docks soon, but one day, they could be as common as drug-sniffing canines. If dogs can detect low blood sugar or find a tiny USB drive hidden in a house, surely they can figure out if you’re smuggling a sculpture made thousands of years ago in your suitcase.

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iStock
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Medicine
New Cancer-Fighting Nanobots Can Track Down Tumors and Cut Off Their Blood Supply
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iStock

Scientists have developed a new way to cut off the blood flow to cancerous tumors, causing them to eventually shrivel up and die. As Business Insider reports, the new treatment uses a design inspired by origami to infiltrate crucial blood vessels while leaving the rest of the body unharmed.

A team of molecular chemists from Arizona State University and the Chinese Academy of Sciences describe their method in the journal Nature Biotechnology. First, they constructed robots that are 1000 times smaller than a human hair from strands of DNA. These tiny devices contain enzymes called thrombin that encourage blood clotting, and they're rolled up tightly enough to keep the substance contained.

Next, researchers injected the robots into the bloodstreams of mice and small pigs sick with different types of cancer. The DNA sought the tumor in the body while leaving healthy cells alone. The robot knew when it reached the tumor and responded by unfurling and releasing the thrombin into the blood vessel that fed it. A clot started to form, eventually blocking off the tumor's blood supply and causing the cancerous tissues to die.

The treatment has been tested on dozen of animals with breast, lung, skin, and ovarian cancers. In mice, the average life expectancy doubled, and in three of the skin cancer cases tumors regressed completely.

Researchers are optimistic about the therapy's effectiveness on cancers throughout the body. There's not much variation between the blood vessels that supply tumors, whether they're in an ovary in or a prostate. So if triggering a blood clot causes one type of tumor to waste away, the same method holds promise for other cancers.

But before the scientists think too far ahead, they'll need to test the treatments on human patients. Nanobots have been an appealing cancer-fighting option to researchers for years. If effective, the machines can target cancer at the microscopic level without causing harm to healthy cells. But if something goes wrong, the bots could end up attacking the wrong tissue and leave the patient worse off. Study co-author Hao Yan believes this latest method may be the one that gets it right. He said in a statement, "I think we are much closer to real, practical medical applications of the technology."

[h/t Business Insider]

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