Atom in the Garden of Eden

Roman Mars:
This is 99% invisible. I’m Roman Mars.

Roman Mars:
At the end of World War II, as the world began to process the powerful and devastating effects of the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, humankind entered a new era, an era defined by the destructive potential of nuclear weapons and the global arms race to acquire them.

News Announcer:
Let us face without panic, the reality of our times, the fact that atom bombs may someday be dropped on our cities, and let us prepare for survival by understanding the weapon that threatens us.

Roman Mars:
And while the violent applications of atomic research had already been proven, governments and scientists suspected atomic science also held promise for good. Peaceful applications that could bring the world into a new age of scientific progress and technology.

President Eisenhower:
It is not enough to take this weapon out of the hands of the soldier. It must be put into the hands of those who will know how to strip its military casing and adapt it to the arts of peace.

Roman Mars:
That’s President Dwight Eisenhower addressing the UN in a 1953 speech titled “Atoms for Peace”. In it, he proposes creating an agency to oversee and promote safe, secure and peaceful nuclear technologies, while also continuing to build up the United States arsenal of nuclear weapons. That agency, created in 1957 was called the International Atomic Energy Association.

President Eisenhower:
Experts would be mobilized to apply atomic energy to the needs of agriculture, medicine and other peaceful activities.

Sharif Youssef:
These efforts to find peaceful applications for nuclear research would spur growth in nuclear energy, which now provides around a fifth of the United States electricity and expand the use of nuclear medicine, giving us imaging techniques and therapies still used for cancer treatments today.

Roman Mars:
That’s our own Sharif Youssef.

Sharif Youssef:
But then there were ideas that seem kind of crazy, in hindsight. One science writer thought nuclear alchemy was possible, that we would have nuclear factories that manufactured gold. He also believed we could create artificial suns to control the weather and others believed we could shower plants in ionizing radiation to mutate them into better, stronger crops.

Roman Mars:
But unlike the others, that one actually happened.

Paige Johnson:
When I ran across it. I was just kind of gobsmacked, you know, I was just stunned. And then just so surprised. I mean, there was very little scholarly writing about it.

Roman Mars:
That’s Paige Johnson.

Paige Johnson:
I’m a chemist and material scientist. I have a hobby of the history of gardens.

Roman Mars:
Johnson is one of the few experts on the often forgotten atomic gardens of the 1950s and ’60s. Gardens that used radioactive materials in attempts to mutate and breed new plants that would benefit mankind.

Paige Johnson:
People kind of assumed it was some sort of a conspiracy. Oh, this was all hidden from the public, wasn’t it? And this was a part of the CIA or it was a part of the propaganda agencies or that sort of thing. And actually it wasn’t. It was widely talked about in speeches. It was written about in popular magazines.

Sharif Youssef:
Atomic Gardens had been largely forgotten, but they weren’t top secret government projects purposely obscured from us. They were right out in the open and they produced new kinds of fruits and grains and vegetables that we still have on our grocery store shelves today.

Roman Mars:
The atomic gardens of the 1950s and ’60s were part of a broader interest and atomic research that ramped up during and after World War II, but they were also part of a much older quest, to breed better heartier crops.

Sharif Youssef:
Humans have been messing with plans to suit our needs for a long time, but to understand the history of using radiation to mutate plants, we need to take a step back to the 1920s, and a relatively new technology of the time, x-rays.

Roman Mars:
In 1927 Herman Muller conducted a famous genetics experiment, where he exposed fruit flies to x-rays, a form of ionizing radiation.

Paige Johnson:
So basically ionizing radiation is just any form of electromagnetic radiation that has the power to penetrate matter, so it has the ability to potentially go inside the cell and actually alter the genetic material.

Roman Mars:
The x-rays changed the genetic makeup of some of the fruit flies and some of those changes, those mutations were heritable, meaning that they could be passed along to the next generation.

Sharif Youssef:
In the 1920s and thirties some plant breeders started using x-rays on plants, in hopes that they could induce mutations that can make them grow faster or produce more fruit or create interesting flowers. But enthusiasm for those techniques would soon die down and for a while the world lost interest in how radiation could alter plants.

Roman Mars:
Fast forward to World War II and a top secret mission spearheaded by the U.S. government, the Manhattan project.

News Announcer:
A new branch of the Army Corps of Engineers was established to administer work on military uses of uranium.

Sharif Youssef:
The U.S. began doing research not only on how to make atomic bombs, but what their effects might be after detonation.

Paige Johnson:
In concert with the kind of weapon-based experiments, they had started to kind of try to monitor what the effect of the nuclear radiation and fallout would be on plants and animals as well.

Roman Mars:
That research continued after the war, in a project called Operation Crossroads, where the US tested nuclear bombs around a small cluster of islands in the Pacific.

Paige Johnson:
The Bikini Atoll is where the U.S. was testing the atomic bombs, not in the middle of the ocean, and that’s the first place where they really start intentionally planting plants and seeing how they’re affected.

Sharif Youssef:
Researchers wanted to find out how plants would respond to the heat in the gamma rays that the bombs gave off.

Roman Mars:
The U.S. also docked boats nearby, filled with rats and goats and pigs to see the effects of bombs on living animals. A lot of them died from the blast as well as the radiation.

Sharif Youssef:
But there were other strains of nuclear research going on much closer to home, particularly in national labs where the government was willing to throw funding at the new hot topic of nuclear science.

Roman Mars:
Even if those projects weren’t directly related to weapons.

Sharif Youssef:
Enter the atomic gardens, and a new quest to alter genetic material and plants. Something we’re still doing today.

Paige Johnson:
With modern genetic modification techniques, we have the ability to go in and very carefully slice the genome with a scalpel. The radiation experiments, the atomic gardens were essentially just hitting the genome with a hammer and seeing what would happen.

Roman Mars:
One of the most fascinating examples of this research was happening at Brookhaven National Labs.

Paige Johnson:
So the Gamma Gardens at Brookhaven in New York, were probably the largest gardens in the US governmental effort devoted the atomic radiation of plants.

Sharif Youssef:
The Brookhaven Gamma Garden was created in 1949, and its original goal was to study the effects of prolonged exposure to gamma rays on plants, but eventually they begin to research whether they can use gamma gardens to induce beneficial mutations.

Paige Johnson:
The essence of a gamma garden is it looks like a big circle with pie-shaped wedges and at the very center of the pie is a radioactive source, that was usually contained in a pole and would be raised above the level of the ground.

Sharif Youssef:
To call them gardens actually makes them sound smaller than they were.

Paige Johnson:
Many of these gamma gardens were five acres in size, so they were really massive installations.

Roman Mars:
And because of the wedges, when viewed from above.

Paige Johnson:
It almost looks like the symbol for radiation danger.

Sharif Youssef:
The center pole contained a radioactive isotope, usually cobalt 60 that would shower the field with gamma radiation for about 20 hours a day. When it was time for researchers to go in and see the results, they would lower the source into an underground bunker made of concrete or lead, step inside the fields’ high fence and inspect the plants arrayed around the center.

Paige Johnson:
Generally at the very front of the source, almost all those plants would die pretty much or they’d be shrunken and shriveled. As you got back towards the back of the pie-shaped wedge, you’d see plants that were living that might look normal, but which were going to be evaluated to see if they had any abnormal growth patterns.

Roman Mars:
Mutations naturally randomly occur in every living cell, but here the researchers were hammering the plains with radiation, in an attempt to increase that rate of mutation in the plant’s DNA. So in a sense, the scientists hope to speed up evolution.

Sharif Youssef:
They were hoping to create crops that could withstand harsh growing conditions, that were more resistant to disease, that could produce more food to help feed the world.

Paige Johnson:
I was struck again by just what a utopian quest it was to kind of rebuild plants and end world famine and make the world … they even used this language, a smiling garden of Eden.

Sharif Youssef:
And this quest wasn’t just taking place in the U.S. By the late 1950s similar experiments were happening around the world in Norway, Sweden, Costa Rica, and the Soviet Union among other places.

Roman Mars:
And not all of these efforts were run by the government or fancy research universities. Some were done by curious citizens. The Atoms for Peace movement began to support the idea that home experimenters could run their own nuclear projects.

Paige Johnson:
As part of this Atoms for Peace effort, it was really actually designed to enable atomic entrepreneurship as well, which seems startling. You know, it’s like kind of if the startup culture of today existed, only you could get a radioactive source from the government, with which to run your startup company.

Sharif Youssef:
In the late 1950s an oral surgeon in Tennessee became one of these atomic entrepreneurs. His name was CJ Speas, and he built a little bunker in his backyard where he started irradiating seeds and selling them to home gardeners and to children looking for science fair projects.

Roman Mars:
These irradiated seeds weren’t dangerous to handle, just because something’s been irradiated doesn’t make it radioactive.

Sharif Youssef:
One of Speas’s biggest clients was an English woman named Muriel Howorth, who was an enthusiast of all things atomic and all things gardening.

Paige Johnson:
She formed something called the atomic gardening society and its purpose was really to engage the lay gardener in the sorts of atomic experiments that were taking place in the national laboratories. So she wanted to provide them with irradiated seeds and they would hopefully discover useful mutations in people’s backyards.

Roman Mars:
People could become members of her atomic gardening society and Muriel would ship out the irradiated seeds and ask them to send back any data they could about the plants.

Paige Johnson:
This was really an early example of crowdsourcing science was what she was doing.

Sharif Youssef:
And her Atomic Gardening Society was just one of Howorth’s efforts to get people involved and interested in nuclear science.

Paige Johnson:
Previous to forming the Atomic Gardening Society, she had published something called the Atomic Digest, whose byline was safeguarding the atom for the layman.

Sharif Youssef:
That digest was part of another society she started called the Atomic Society for the Layman.

Paige Johnson:
Albert Einstein agrees to be the first patron of her society. She was invited to gatherings of the Nobel laureates, who acknowledged her to say, our goals are much like yours.

Roman Mars:
A lot of atomic scientists liked the idea that their work was being used for something besides making bombs.

Paige Johnson:
So the atomic scientists were very concerned that the power of the atom would be kept kind of only for evil and only for weaponry, and felt like the safest route for it was for it to be brought out into the open and into the realm of the lay person and into these more peaceful causes.

Roman Mars:
And Muriel certainly made great efforts to help this cause.

Paige Johnson:
She had a lot of atomic gatherings and events. So there were film screenings about atomic topics, there were lectures, there were parties, and she was particularly unique in that she spoke explicitly to women about this.

Sharif Youssef:
In 1950, she even staged an elaborate performance in which actors pantomimed the basic structure of an atom, and it was reviewed by some pretty major publications.

Paige Johnson:
So here is the review of the performance and Time magazine: “Before a select audience of 250 rapt ladies and a dozen faintly bored gentlemen, some 13 bosomy atomic energy associates in flowing evening gowns, gyrated gracefully about a stage in earnest imitation of atomic forces at work.”

Roman Mars:
By the 1960s, popular interest in atomic gardening was coming to an end. Members of the Atomic Gardening Society grew tired of seeing very few promising results from their seeds. It was extremely rare to get a beneficial mutation and mutations were hard for people without scientific training to detect.

Sharif Youssef:
Backyard atomic gardening basically reached its peak with Muriel Howorth, but radiation plant breeding didn’t completely disappear. Japan has an institute that uses a radiation field very similar to the Brookhaven Gamma Gardens and the International Atomic Energy Association and the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, have a joint plant breeding team still conducting research with radiation today.

Roman Mars:
And there are still varieties of plants in our food system that came about from radiation experiments, a strain of durum wheat in Italy, varieties of rice throughout Asia, certain pears in Japan, and a breed of sunflower in the U.S., just to name a few.

Sharif Youssef:
Also the Rio Star grapefruit came about because of radiation breeding experiments and now accounts for about 75% of the grapefruit grown in Texas. Our producer Delaney Hall, who used to live in Texas, and can confirm that it is delicious.

Delaney Hall:
Yeah, I can confirm that it is delicious.

Sharif Youssef:
But despite some successes, radiation plant breeding never managed to live up to its ideals of ending famine and turning the world into a “smiling garden of Eden.”

Paige Johnson:
Basically after the 60s it was clear that things didn’t live up to their promise.

Dr. Helen Curry:
It definitely didn’t live up to its aspirations.

Roman Mars:
That’s Helen Ann Curry.

Dr. Helen Curry:
I’m a senior lecturer in the history and philosophy of science at the University of Cambridge.

Roman Mars:
She’s also the author of “Evolution Made to Order: Plant Breeding and Technological Innovation in 20th Century America”.

Sharif Youssef:
Curry thinks that over time, especially as environmentalist movements started, people may have become less intrigued by and more wary of all things nuclear, including radiation breeding.

Dr. Helen Curry:
Whether it’s going to create horrible things in the field that I might not want to ever eat anyway. I wonder if radiation lingers on the seeds and might pose a threat to me. So I think this view becomes much more mixed about what the possibilities are.

Roman Mars:
Some historians believe that the Atoms for Peace movement was just a cover anyway. A way to put a positive spin on atomic research as the U.S. continued to build up its nuclear arsenal. When Eisenhower assumed office in 1953, the U.S. had about 1,000 nuclear weapons. When he left in 1961, there were around 18,000.

Sharif Youssef:
Eisenhower needed people to believe that there was hope in nuclear research, not just fear, so that we wouldn’t turn away from nuclear weapons completely. He wanted us to keep pursuing nuclear technology, even if it scared us, because the Soviets were certainly pursuing it, and that was even scarier at the time.

Roman Mars:
But this march toward mutually assured destruction would leave us with other world-changing non-military innovations too, like nuclear power, the expanded field of nuclear medicine and of course the unarguably delicious Rio Star grapefruit.

Comments (6)

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  1. Tim

    Great show! As a scientist working on molecular plant breeding it was great to hear something I work with every day being given the 99PI treatment.
    These mutational breeding techniques are still extensively used today although we tend to use chemical or enzymatic mutation instead of radiation now. The only thing I would like to add to the story (which was briefly touched upon in the piece) is that the latest suite of plant breeding techniques, often referred to as ‘Genome Editing’ techniques, are just directed mutational breeding. That is they allow us to target the mutation we want to introduce into the DNA instead of just making thousands of mutations and hoping we get the one we want. So the ideology behind using atomic radiation to improve our food quality and food security is still alive and well!!

  2. Jesse the K

    In the article, you refer to the citizen atomic gardener as “Howarth,” but in the show you used just her first name, Muriel. Not a treatment you give the male subjects in this story. I’d love to hear people’s full names in this case, as it provides equal dignity and makes it easier for me to find out more about them.

    1. Hi Jesse,
      I think I’m the culprit…having worked on the Atomic Gardens for several years and knowing her remaining family, I feel quite friendly toward Howorth and think of her on a first-name basis. “Muriel” is actually more formal than the appellation I use with her family, who refer to her by her nickname, “Mitzi”! But your point is appropriate and well-taken. Thanks for the feedback.
      Paige Johnson

  3. Joe Zeitler

    There was an episode of Gillian’s Island where Gillian finds a box of radioactive seeds. They give the people who eat the vegetables grown from them super powers. You forgot to mention the superpowers.

  4. Looks like Joe beat me to the punch. As soon as this episode mentioned radioactive seeds I immediately thought of the episode of Gilligan’s Island ‘Pass the Vegetables, Please’.
    There are not many episode of GI that I can recall but this one was especially memorable because of the super powers.

    I wonder if it was ever considered that any of these treated seeds would pass on any benefit to the eater.

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