Category Archives: Nature


First Genetically Modified Corn?

All corn, or maize, is genetically modified. It began 6,000 to 10,000 years ago as a wild grass called teosinte. It was nothing like the tasty ears of corn we enjoy now, the seeds were hard and small with only about 5 to 12 seeds.


It looks more like something you would take a string trimmer to than it does an important food crop, doesn’t it?

Early Mesoamericans (people who lived in what is now Mexico and Central America, before Europeans came) bred the plants over thousands of years to get plants that were closer to what we think of as corn.

Modern corn needs people as much as people need it. If an apple falls off an apple tree, the fruit will rot and the seeds will have a chance of sprouting. If a corn cob full of corn falls off the plant the seeds are too tightly wrapped to be able to sprout. Even if it was shucked first, there are too many tightly spaced seeds. It would not have the room it needs to grow.

Corn growers realized they could breed together several varieties of corn and create hybrids that combined the most desirable qualities of the ancestor varieties. According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, “About 95 percent of our corn acreage now is planted to hybrid corn. We produce at least 20 percent more corn on 25 percent fewer acres than in 1930, when seed of hybrid corn became available in quantity to American farmers.”

Hybridization let us develop corn that was more vigorous, disease resistant, had shorter growing periods, and was sweeter. New seeds had to be bought each year since you cannot grow the same plant from the seeds of a hybrid. The plants from its seeds will revert back to the parent varieties.

Corn that had been genetically modified in a lab was first made commercially available in 1996 by Monsanto. There have been several genetically engineered modifications to corn:

  • Herbicide tolerant – This lets farmers use an herbicide that kills weeds without harming the crop. This helps prevent soil erosion because the lands needs less tilling to destroy weeds.
  • Bt toxin production – A toxin that is produced by a soil bacterium is inserted into the plant. It is harmful to insects that try to eat the plant but is not harmful to humans or animals. It reacts with the alkaline insides of the insect (our stomachs have acid). An extract of this toxin is used in organic farming. Using plants with this modification means the farmers can use less pesticides.
  • Starch breakdown – This GM corn contains a transgene for an enzyme that breaks the starch in the corn down into maltose. This speeds the corn’s production into ethanol.

Corn and other plant hybridization helped feed the world for a while, but to keep growing we need to continue to develop genetically engineered plants that provide more food, use less resources, and are more environmentally friendly.

Learn more about teosinte from the University of Wisconsin and the history of maize (corn) from
NYT article about the history of corn

Find out the myths and truth about GMO corn from NPR

Read a post at the Skeptical Raptor’s Blog with lots of links to learn about GMO science vs. anti-GMO fear mongers.


Last Time the Planets were Aligned?

If you mean all in a row like the picture at the top of this post, the answer is never. The last time the view of them from the Earth had them within 30 degrees of each other was 561 B.C. In April 2002, a few of them – Jupiter, Saturn, Mars, Venus and Mercury – appeared to line up over the Western horizon. This same pattern of these five planets will repeat again on September 8, 2040.

The next full line-up, like the 561 B.C. one,  will be May 6, 2492.

When an astronomer speaks of the planets being in alignment, it means that, when looking at them from the Earth, you can see them in the same general area in the sky.

Solar System Live – set the date and time to find the location of planets.

Pictures and news from NASA’s Solar and Heliospheric Observatory

And just as an extra bonus, here’s David Bowie singing “Life on Mars?”.

Maybe some microbial life, definitely one little explorer bot.  I know the Mars Rover isn’t alive, but on its birthday, it sings (hums? chimes?) to itself. Teaching a robot to do something that would be done out of loneliness if a human did it is a pretty clear sign that it will eventually develop sentience. I know this because I’ve seen a lot of scifi movies and TV shows. It Always Happens!

August 5 will be the anniversary of the Mars lander arriving on the planet.


Last Time Lake Erie was Frozen?

The cold winter weather has us waiting to see if Lake Erie will freeze over this year. As of February 18, 2015 it’s close to 94% covered.


Here’s a time-lapse video of the ice building up on the lake via

Lake Erie has a surface area of 9,990 square miles and while it is fourth largest in surface area, it’s the shallowest of the lakes and has the least water volume. This makes it the one that is most likely to freeze over.

The winter of 2009 – 2010 was cold. By February 13, 2010, all 48 contiguous states had at least some snow on the ground. By February 16, Lake Erie was 98% frozen. So close.

We have to go back to the winter of 1996 for the last time it was completely frozen.

Just in case you came here looking for another frozen…we don’t want you to be disappointed.


House Cat Domesticated?

Have they been domesticated? I’ve had several cats during my life (I now live with three) and they all varied in the amount of what I would consider domestication. They all have seemed quite happy to have us around while still maintaining an air of being willing to do without us if we lost our usefulness.

Scientists from archaeologists to geneticists are looking for information that will help give us a better idea of when was the time that cats decided we were worth keeping around. They think that cats have been living with us for at least 9,000 or 10,000 years. Until recently there wasn’t much known about how cats went from kind of, sort of, living with us to cult worship status in Egypt 4,000 years ago.

A 9,500 year old co-burial site with a person and a wild cat was found in Cyprus. In the same area they have also found a sculpted head of what looks like a part cat/part human creature.

Results of a study was published in 2013 that showed that, more recently, cats were living with people in a Neolithic farming village of Quanhucun, China (about 5,300 years ago). If cats weren’t domesticated at that point, at least they were living in a symbiotic relationship with us – eating the vermin that were eating the grain stored by the farmers.

Within the next thousand years they definitely became pets – there’s a picture of a cat with a collar in an Egyptian tomb from around 2500-2350 BC and by 1976-1793 BC they were showing up frequently in Egyptian art.

Read or listen to a fictional story about how cats came to live with people, “The Cat Who Walked by Himself” by Rudyard Kipling.

Find out about different cat breeds.

Thinking about adopting a pet? Search for U.S. animal shelter pets to adopt.