The genius of Luther Burbank, father of the most famous potato in the world

luther burbank - Library of Congress

Luther Burbank created some of the world’s most commercially successful fruits and vegetables, all from his Santa Rosa, California farm.

The Los Angeles Times recently ran a review of fast-food french fries that caused a stir because the writer placed fries made at California’s beloved In-N-Out burger somewhere near the bottom. This infuriated the state’s rabid fan base for what is arguably one of the best burger joints in America. But one fact that was lost in the whole debate is this: if it were not for the work of one Californian farmer, we would likely not have french fries at all, or at least not as we know them today. 

Russet Burbank potato. Credit Wikipedia
Russet Burbank potato. Credit Wikipedia

That is because most french fries today are made with a particular strain of potato –  the Russet Burbank – that exists largely because of one man: Luther Burbank. Burbank is a little-known Californian (part of an ongoing series) whose contributions to science, in particular botany, have had an outsized impact on much of the fresh produce we consume today. 

Burbank is a towering figure in horticulture, credited with creating the science of modern plant breeding. For decades in the late 19th, early 20th centuries, his experimental farm in Santa Rosa, California, was famous throughout the world for the stunning variety of new fruit and vegetable varieties that emerged from the farm’s fertile soil. 

Luther Burbank - Library of Congress
Luther Burbank. Credit: Library of Congress

Born in 1849 in Lancaster, Massachusetts, Burbank came to California in 1875, buying a four-acre plot of land to start a nursery and garden in order to breed edible crops. While not a trained scientist, Burbank had a preternatural knack for identifying desirable characteristics in plants, which he selected for through an arduous, time-consuming, and oftentimes brilliantly intuitive series of techniques that led to the creation of some of our most cherished strains of fruits and vegetables. 

Over the course of his 55-year career, Burbank developed more than 800 new strains and varieties of plants, including flowers, grains, grasses, vegetables, cacti, and fruits. These include 113 varieties of plums, 20 of which remain commercially valuable, especially in California and South Africa. He also developed 10 commercial varieties of berries (including the oxymoronically-named white blackberry) as well as more than 50 varieties of lilies

Amazingly, Burbank was able to achieve all this without direct knowledge of plant genetics, pioneered by the Augustinian friar Gregor Mendel in what is now the Czech Republic in the mid-1800s (and whose papers were brought to light in 1901, long after his death in 1884). Burbank’s lack of precise record-keeping and somewhat unorthodox — some would say sloppy — record-keeping, has led some modern scientists to criticize his credentials. Purdue University professor Jules Janick, wrote that “Burbank cannot be considered a scientist in the academic sense.” 

Luther Burbank with spineless cactus that he developed.
Luther Burbank with spineless cactus that he developed. Credit: Library of Congress

That said, Burbank’s innovations in Santa Rosa were revolutionary and garnered him worldwide attention, as well as financial support from benefactors like Andrew Carnegie, who supported Burbank because he believed the work was of great potential benefit to humanity. 

Burbank perfected techniques in common use today such as grafting, hybridization, and cross-breeding. At the time, his efforts resulted in large yield increases for numerous edible species in the United States in the early 20th century. 

But perhaps Burbank’s most lasting achievement was the Russet Burbank potato, which first came on the scene around 1902. Burbank bred the new stain from an unusual “seedball” he found on his farm, which came from a strain called Early Rose. Burbank planted the seeds, chose the most select fruits and further hybridized those. Soon, he had a wonderfully robust and hearty potato that he could sell.  

This large, brown-skinned, fleshy-white tuber is now the world’s predominant potato in food processing. The Russet Burbank is ideal for baking, mashing, and french fries. It is now grown predominantly in Idaho, the top potato-growing state in the US, where the variety makes up more than 55% of the state’s potato production. 

Burbank came up with the Russet Burbank potato to help with the devastating situation in Ireland following the Irish potato famine. His aim was to help “revive the country’s leading crop” due to the fact that it is “Late blight-resistant”. Late blight disease destroyed potato crops across Europe and led to a devastating famine in Ireland because the country was so dependent on potatoes as a common foodstuff. Unfortunately, Burbank did not patent the Russet Burbank because plant tubers, of which the potato is one, were not granted patents in the United States. 

But the Russet Burbank was such a hearty strain, and so nutritious and flavorful (though some disagree), that it became the potato of choice for many grocery stores and restaurants. This did not happen automatically, but took about two decades to catch on. In fact, in 1930, the Russet Burbank accounted for just 4% of potatoes in the US. But things would quickly change with the advent of frozen french fries in the 1940s and the subsequent emergence of fast-food restaurants like McDonald’s in the 1950s. The Russet Burbank was perfectly suited for french fries and remains the world’s most popular potato by a long shot.  

Unfortunately, Luther Burbank had a dark side, especially by modern mores. He believed in eugenics, the idea that human beings should be selectively bred like produce. He was a member of a national eugenicist group, which promoted anti-miscegenation laws, segregation, involuntary sterilization, and other discrimination by race.

Luther Burbank home in Santa Rosa, California. Credit: Library of Congress

Luther Burbank died after a heart attack and gastrointestinal illness in 1926. His name is known in certain regions of California, in and around Santa Rosa, although if you asked the average person who he was, few would be able to say. The Luther Burbank Home and Gardens, in downtown Santa Rosa, are designated as a National Historic Landmark.

— by Erik Olsen

This article is part of a series about little-known, but highly-influential California scientists. See other articles here.

Redwood poachers ruin majestic giants // LA’s air quality is deteriorating // Inhaled: new podcast series  // California science news roundup

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Week of July 5, 2019


Redwood poachers ruin majestic giants

Credit: National Park Service

Probably our favorite thing we read all week was this story from Bloomberg about the illegal theft of so-called Redwood burls from California’s Redwood National Park. Burls are the massive, swollen, misshapen growths that naturally occur on trees. Basically, the grain has grown from the tree in a deformed manner, a form of cellular misdirection. They look a little bit like tumors or additional appendages. But because of the strange patterns they exhibit when the fresh wood is exposed, burls are extremely valuable around the world. They are used to make tables and countertops and footstools, etc. A quick search online came up with numerous sites selling redwood burl tables for tens of thousands of dollars. Certain raw burl pieces are also extremely valuable. No wonder thieves go after them. 

The problem is that choice redwood burls are very rare. They take many years, often hundreds of years, to grow and become large and complex. And if there’s one place large, ancient redwoods grow in abundance, it’s Redwood National Park in Northern California. 

Poachers have been entering Redwood National Park in the night with saws and cutting off the burls to sell for big bucks. The trees usually survive, but they are permanently scarred. Burl removal is legal if the trees are in private hands and the owner gives the ok. But burl cutting is illegal in the national park, as you can imagine. And since we’re talking Redwoods National Park, we’re talking some of the tallest, finest, rarest, most beautiful trees on the planet, so the thought that criminals are burl poaching in these parks gets pretty infuriating. 

Luckily, as the story explains, park rangers like Branden Pero are tasked with catching the burl poachers and they’ve brought some high technology to bear (including hidden cameras) to nab Derek Alwin Hughes, a 35-year old meth user who was charged with six crimes, including Grand Theft.



LA’s air quality is deteriorating

If you lived in Los Angeles in the 70s, then you remember the days when schools closed due to poor air quality. With few Federal laws in place mandating controls on car exhaust, the city was often blanketed under a disgusting layer of brown smog. 

We’ve come a long way since then. The 1970 Clean Air Act and the EPA’s strict regulation of exhaust emissions, improved LA’s air and made it breathable again. It’s been called one of the greatest successes in US environmental history. But according to a study published this year by scientists at New York University and the American Thoracic Society, we’ve been taken several steps backward, especially where ozone is concerned. Ozone can damage lungs, trigger asthma attacks and lead to other life-threatening problems.

The problem is particularly bad in Southern California, where researchers found a 10% increase in deaths attributable to ozone pollution from 2010 to 2017. While downtown and the westside have fared somewhat better, inland regions around Riverside and San Bernadino are experiencing the most dangerous levels of pollution. California regulators have been tasked with devising a plan by the end of the year to reduce ozone, and they say it’s going to be expensive, perhaps costing as much as $14 billion.  

Los Angeles Times

Public Health

Inhaled: a new podcast series  

Let’s stick with air quality and health for a moment. A powerful new 5-part podcast series by the Chico Enterprise Record called Inhaled looks at the health impacts of last year’s wildfires, with a particular focus on the Camp Fire, the deadliest, most destructive wildfire in California history. It turns out that the smoke from the Camp Fire, and numerous other fires around the state, has led to lingering health problems for many people. Smoke contains toxic particles that can lodge themselves into lungs and cause permanent health problems. Those health effects are now being felt by many people, many of whom are finding it difficult to get the health care they need. It’s an important story because we tend to think of the impact of wildfires as something immediate, with death and property damage occurring quickly, when the reality is the damage to personal health can linger for years.     


California science news roundup

An interesting update on the Mars InSight lander, which has been experiencing lingering problems with its heat probe, an autonomous hammer that’s supposed to penetrate five meters down into the Martian soil to get all sorts of never-before-made measurements.  The bad news: they haven’t fixed it. The good news: they HAVE been able to measure small Mars quakes, providing scientists with new data and clues about the planet’s interior. (Planetary Society

A look at the problem of feral horses in California. Wild mustang populations are out of control, competing with cattle and native wildlife for resources. If the federal government doesn’t rein them in, ranchers may take matters into their own hands. (Alta Magazine)

California’s illegal pot farms are killing wild fish. Run-off, water diversion, and pollution from illegal cannabis farms are polluting streams where fish like steelhead and salmon thrive, killing many. (Bitterroot Magazine)  

The tragically failed plan in Modesto to plant 5,000 trees. (Modesto Bee)

Hawthrone-based SpaceX faces challenges in launching thousands of satellites to provide space-based internet service. But the payoff could help finance the company’s bigger space ambitions. (LA Times)

Mothers in California are leading efforts to ban harmful pesticides. (Grist)

Another serial-rape suspect is nabbed (this time in Sacramento) with DNA testing technology. (SacBee)

A compelling argument that the iPhone may be reducing resource consumption rather than increasing it. Think of all the things you no longer own because smartphones have replaced them: calculator, camcorder, clock radio, mobile telephone, and tape recorder. (Wired)

Jupiter‘s moon Io is the most volcanically active body in the solar system. Caltech scientist Katherine de Kleer has been capturing the moon’s volcanic landscape in incredible detail. (New York Times)

Caltech scientists at the Owens Valley Radio Observatory have been able to pinpoint the location of so-called fast radio bursts to a distant galaxy almost 8 billion light-years away. (CalTech)

Some dude went snorkeling in Sausal Creek in Oakland. He saw some fish. Interesting, but kind of gross. (SF Gate)

There’s a new book out about how California’s longstanding role as a center for health, wellness, nutritional fads, and sunshine changed its architecture. (LA Curbed)

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California leading in desalination plants // Using AI to stop wildfire // Two happy salmon stories // Health dangers at Aliso plant // P-75: California’s newest mountain lion // California science news roundup

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Week of June 28, 2019


California leading in desalination plants

Credit: Poseidon Water

California’s water woes seem to be improving after a very wet winter and record-setting snowpack. There’s so much water, in fact, that Lake Powell rose 16 feet in the last month and is experiencing an inflow of 128% above average. Reservoir levels across the state are all mostly at or above capacity. However, everyone knows how temporary these conditions are likely to be, and how easy it will be to return to drought conditions in the state.   

Yale360 takes a look at the state of desalination plants in Southern California, focusing on the Claude “Bud” Lewis Carlsbad Desalination Plant north of San Diego. It is the largest effort to turn salt water into fresh in North America, processing 100 million gallons of seawater a day (and making 50 million gallons). De-sal is on the rise. California water officials approved $34.4 million in grants to eight desalination projects across the state. Another huge plant the side of the Carlsbad plant is being built in Huntington, California.

But desalination has huge downsides. It is incredibly energy-intensive, it has high carbon emissions, and the waste from the plants (after removing salt from saltwater), is put back into the ocean, threatening sea life. The intake pipes that pull water from the ocean can also be hazardous to fish. That said, numerous countries threatened by global warming and increasing drought are building plants at warp speed, including Australia and Israel. Israeli companies, in fact, are at the forefront of de-sal technology.

As significant as the downsides are, it does seem like de-sal is here to stay. The oceans simply contain so much water, and as populations rise, temperatures soar, and fresh water becomes more scarce, de-sal is the obvious solution.  



Using artificial intelligence to stop wildfires


It’s impossible to forget the damage wrought by last year’s terrible wildfire season. It seems clear that the fires are yet another sign of a warming planet and the growing unpredictability in weather conditions. California public officials are bringing many new technologies to bear to try and better predict when fires may erupt in order to put them out more quickly and to save property and lives. 

The New York Times has a story about an effort by fire departments in Southern California to use big data and artificial intelligence to improve how they respond to these disasters. The fire department is testing a program developed by the WiFire Lab at the San Diego Supercomputer Center that makes predictions about fire behavior and where fire will spread next. It’s called FireMap. Using giant government data sets and on-the-ground sensors, it assembles real-time information about the presence of flammable materials, weather conditions, and the topology of a burning area. 

New York Times


Two positive salmon stories  

Source: Jessica Christian / The Chronicle

The news for California salmon over the years has not been great. Many of the species that were once abundant are either gone entirely or threatened. California Coho Salmon have been in serious decline since the mid-20th century. The California Coastal Chinook Salmon was federally listed as threatened in 1999. Some reports have suggested that many of the salmon populations in the state are unlikely to survive the century.

But according to news reports out this week, some California king salmon populations are experiencing a rebound in coastal waters off Northern California. Fishermen are reporting the biggest salmon season in a decade, and are hauling in kings by the hundreds. That’s good news for the fish and for those who plan to fire up the grill this summer. However, it does raise concerns about over-fishing the species just as it seems on the brink of a fragile recovery.  

Another hopeful salmon story over at the California Academy of Sciences amazing BioGraphic site looks at an effort to restore endangered populations of wild-spawning Chinook near Sacramento using flooded rice plains as a habitat surrogate during fallow months. The flooded rice fields essentially serve as winter nurseries for young salmon migrating from their natal streams to the ocean. A novel idea, and by no means a panacea, but a step in the right direction.  

San Francisco Chronicle          BioGraphic

Public Health

Aliso Canyon blowout could have more serious health risks than reported

The Aliso Canyon gas blowout (also called Porter Ranch gas leak) was the largest-known human-caused release of methane in U.S. history. The long-term health impacts around the blowout have yet to be determined, but researchers from UCLA’s Fielding School of Public Health released a report this week showing that air quality samples collected near the natural gas storage facility during the 2015 blowout were even worse than suspected. The samples showed elevated levels of pollutants known or suspected to be associated with serious health problems. The study suggests that the health risks to people living in the nearby residential community of Porter Ranch were higher than initially stated. 
“Our findings demonstrate that uncontrolled leaks or blowout events at natural gas storage facilities can release pollutants with the potential to cause not only environmental harm, but also adverse health consequences in surrounding communities,” said study first author Diane A. Garcia-Gonzales.  

Fielding School of Public Health


California welcomes its newest mountain lion: P-75

Credit: National Park Service

A new mountain lion (AKA cougar) was discovered by California wildlife officials this week. The 50-pound female was found at a trailer park in the Pacific Palisades, and it became the newest addition to an ongoing study on mountain lions in the Santa Monica Mountains. They have named it P-75.  State wildlife officials and biologists tranquilized the lion and outfitted it with a GPS tracking collar. They then released it into the Santa Monica Mountains National Recreation Area. 

More than half of California is mountain lion habitat, and while they’ve been known to attack people, it is extremely rare for them to do so. (That said, one poor chap was attacked by a mountain lion in Colorado earlier this year, and he choked it to death with his bare hands).

The fact is, however, the animals are facing serious threats to their existence. Habitat loss, highway strikes and accidental poisonings have killed several lions in recent years. One study suggests the lions, the Southern California group, specifically, are actually far more threatened than previously believed. The study claims that the lions are in the midst of a so-called “extinction vortex,” and face a 25 percent chance of extinction within 50 years. But that’s the bad news. The good news is Southern California has a new addition to its mountain lion family. We welcome you P-75! 

LA Times

California science news roundup

An op-ed by scientists at the Monterey Bay Aquarium Research Institute (MBARI) and NOAA looks at the unusual loss of grey whales this year off the California coast. 167 North Pacific gray whales have washed ashore dead from Mexico to Alaska since January. Scientists are not sure what’s going on. (NY Times)

lovely illustration on the value of pollinators in the city by visual storyteller Ariel Aberg-Riger.  Pollinating insects are hugely important in California. An estimated 1,200–1,500 native bee species call California home, and they are critical to the state’s agricultural industry. (CityLab)

One of the largest nurseries in the world, in California’s Central Valley, is experimenting with a technique to stress agricultural plants to prepare for declining water and escalating salt in an effort to confront climate change. (Bay Nature/KQED)  

Hog Island Oyster Co. and the University of California, Davis team upto breed acidification-resistant oysters. (Christian Science Monitor)

Shipping giant Maersk is introducing driverless cargo carriers at its terminal in the Port of Los Angeles, angering dockworkers. The carriers would operate 24 hours a day, as opposed to the 16 hours of shifts manned by dockworkers now. (LA Times)

Scientists at Scripps Institution of Oceanography in California have identified a previously unknown species of damselfish called the Corazon’s Damsel. It lives in Madagascar, and its Latin name Pomacentrus vatosoa means “beautiful stone.” (Times of San Diego)

profile of Caltech chemist Kimberly See, whose lab at Caltech is inventing new batteries to help reduce CO2 emissions and slow climate change. (CalTech Magazine)

Arnold Schwarzenegger stars in a funny…no, really, it’s good…new ad touting electric cars. (YouTube)

Monterey Bay Aquarium goes crazy for cuttlefish for Cephalopod Week. The aquarium is one of the few places that raise flamboyant cuttlefish. (Monterey Bay Aquarium / SciFri)

Taking a road trip from LA to Vegas and back to test the viability of electric cars. The problem: not enough range and not enough charging stations. (NY Times)

Drone maker DJI plans to manufacture drones for the US market in Cerritos, California. 

Great deep dive on the issue of relicensing dams in the West. Some are in need of huge and expensive repairs. What’s the cost to fix them and should some be pulled down? (Stanford’s Center for the American West)

Huntington Park has a new robot cop equipped with a 360-degree high-definition camera. But it looks more like a Weeble than Robocop. 

Trump Administration hopes to dredge San Francisco Bay to help ship oil.

Saving Sunset Magazine, one of the state’s oldest publications.

For cephalopod week, we posted several short videos from our recent diving/filming expedition in Indonesia. Here’s our favorite of the amazing and beautiful flamboyant cuttlefish. 

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Blocking offshore drilling // Finding clear skies for stargazing in California // Amazing moon shots // Black abalone recovery // California’s Central Valley as art

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Week of June 21, 2019


House approves a measure to block offshore drilling for a year

Credit: Erik Olsen

The House passed a spending bill late Thursday that would block offshore drilling along most U.S. shores, including a ban on seismic testing used to find oil and gas reserves. Unfortunately, it only lasts a year. Many groups, particularly in California, have long sought an end to drilling, and there was immense hope that would be the case in 2016 when President Obama permanently ended oil and gas leasing in parts of the Atlantic and Arctic oceans. However, President Trump issued an executive order in April 2017 that would roll back these protections, and in January 2018, now former U.S. Department of the Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke proposing opening up nearly all federal waters to oil and gas extraction. The new measure potentially restores the safeguard that protected California’s coast for more than a quarter century.  



Finding clear star-gazing skies in California

Light Pollution Map

It’s not easy to find great places to gaze up into the night sky and take in the grandeur and awe of the universe. Light pollution from cities has obscured the skies in so many places around the state, that you are often lucky, even on a clear night, to see more than a dozen or so points of light. Of course, this is a problem everywhere, not just California. In June 2016, it was estimated that one-third of the world’s population could no longer see the Milky Way. 

For California residents seeking dark spaces to escape with their telescopes or just a blanket to lie on, there is some hope. Many municipalities are installing less light polluting LEDs or passing ordinances to turn off certain lights during the night to reduce light pollution.

There are a few places where you can still go to find clear night skies. The light pollution map offers a very handy resource to find California’s best star viewing opportunities. Not surprisingly, desert areas and sections of Northern California offer some of the best locations. For example, Anza-Borrego Desert State Park in southern California was made a dark park in 2018. Also, two weeks ago, the Grand Canyonwas named an International Dark Sky Park by the International Dark-Sky Association. 

Light Pollution Map


Amazing moon shots

Speaking of dark skies, let’s talk astrophotography. Take a look at Sacramento photographer Andrew McCarthy‘s images of the moon.McCarthy has spent many hours transforming some 50,000 individual images of the night sky into one very large and detailed photo of the moon. It’s breathtakingly beautiful and exquisitely detailed. Each crater and lunar sea on the side facing us looks like it was shot up close, when actually they were taken with McCarthy’s two camera setup 239,000 miles away. His process involves shooting photos and then stacking them at different exposures. He switches between an astronomy camera and a Sony A7II with a 300mm lens. Using Photoshop and special software, he aligns and adjusts the images to create the final product. You can see his marvelous Instagram feed here. 

Andrew McCarthy

Marine Science

California black abalone making a comeback

Credit: Michael Ready

Back in 2017, ride-sharing company Uber held its second Uber Elevate Summit in Los Angeles to push the idea of flying taxis. To most Los Angelenos, the thought of soaring over traffic is almost too good to be true, a Jetsons cartoon fantasy. But it may not be as far fetched as it seems. Numerous companies are working on the idea, and the technology is getting closer and closer to reality. One of the big obstacles at the moment is battery power, since most flying cars will have to be electric and the systems will need to carry a lot of redundancy (flying cars will not be able to glide much), which adds tremendous weight. 

Another obstacle is infrastructure. Where are all these flying cars going to take off and land? Well, Uber has been thinking a lot about this subject and just released plans for various “skyports” that will be built around Los Angeles.  Uber says that both LA and Dallas will be the pilot cities for the new service it calls Uber Air. Uber also unveiled renderings of the vehicles themselves, which include four passenger seats and a small storage space for baggage. The company says we may be riding in flying taxis, perhaps starting with service from LAX to downtown, by 2023. 

Santa Barbara Independent


California’s Central Valley as art

Mitchell Rouse

Aerial Photographer Mitchell Rouse takes aerial photos of agricultural lands in the Central Valley, making works of fine art that are not only lovely, but highlight the incredible diversity of forms and patterns that only an eye in the sky can see. Interestingly, he doesn’t use drones, but rather small planes and helicopters. In particular, he favors the Bell 407 helicopter and shoots with a Shot Over F1 Gimbal housing a Phase 1 Industrial 15oMP pixel camera. His portfolio of the central valley is called Agricultural Project #1.   

Mitchell Rouse

California science news roundup

California officials and seismologists are saying the swarm of small quakes they’ve measured are probably not anything to be worried about. Probably.

California officials are investigating an Oakland-based “biohacker”, accusing him of practicing medicine without a license.  

ABC News did a nice feature on California’s Channel Islands, sometimes called “North America’s Galapagos.”   

NASA has made available a library of 140,000 high definition files filled with photos, videos, and sound clips, all free and available for download. 

Blue states are adopting aggressive climate policies. Red states, not so much.

Research oceanographer Jules Jaffe at Scripps Institute of Oceanography talks about how underwater drones (some of which his lab builds) are changing our understanding of the oceans.

Surfer Kevin Cunningham makes surfboard skags out of plastic trash. 

A new California wildfire fund would put aside $21 billion for damage claims to help those whose property was destroyed.

A Stanford team is developing a privacy-minded alternative to Alexa and Siri. They call it almond.

California based CEO Elon Musk says his company has designed a submarine car like the one from the 1977 James Bond movie, “The Spy Who Loved Me.”

Nestlé, the world’s largest bottled water company, has been accused of taking millions of gallons of free water from the San Bernardino National Forest 17 months after California regulators told them they had no right to much of what they’d taken in the past.

century-old cypress that may have inspired some of the imagery in Dr. Seuss’ Lorax story has collapsed. Geisel lived in La Jolla from 1948 until his death in 1991 and the tree lies close to his old home.

DOLA has a nice feature on the best opportunities to see exotic animals in California.

Scientists sequenced the almond genome, perhaps opening up a way for growers to cultivate varieties that lack cyanide, a potent poison.

California mental health officials are working with Mountain View-based Mindstrong to test apps for people getting care in CA’s mental health system. The idea is to create an early-warning system to flag the user when an emotional crisis seemed imminent.

Stanford Earth system science professor Kate Maher on how reactive transport modeling is used to better understand the chemical reactions in Earth’s subsurface that impact water supplies, energy waste storage, and climate change.

The heavy snows and deep snowpack have been great for skiers, and will benefit farmers who were coping with a seven-year drought. But researchers are warning that the ample rains and snows might lead to a very serious increase in wildfires. 

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How California Companies are Leading the Effort to Save the World with Microbes

Synbio startups like NovoNutrients are developing novel products to help feed the world and stop climate change.

Wikipedia – CC BY-SA 3.0

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Overfishing is arguably one of the most significant threats to the human food supply on the planet. Approximately three billion people in the world rely on both wild and farmed seafood as their primary source of protein, and ten percent of the world’s population depends on fisheries to make a living.

One the of dirty little secrets of the global commercial fish industry is that it takes fish to make fish. While many people see farmed fish as an ideal solution to meeting our protein needs in the future, the reality is that feeding farmed fish right now requires massive inputs of so-called forage fish, namely small fish like anchovies, herring, menhaden, capelin, anchovy, pilchard, sardines, and mackerel that occur in large numbers in the ocean, particularly the cold Southern and Northern latitudes. A multi-billion dollar industry is dedicated to using large ships that ply the ocean with nets to bring up millions of tons of forage fish every year.

These forage fish go into making fishmeal, essentially powders and pellets made from ground up forage fish. As fish farming increases, which it has for decades, so does the need to harvest more feeder fish. Increasingly, this is done unsustainably, and illegally. Some scientists warn that as the feeder fish industry explodes, entire marine ecosystems, including those that support animals like whales and large pelagic fish stand in danger of collapse.

So is there a way to feed farmed fish that reduces the need to trawl the seas for forage fish? It turns out that one California company is working on a solution, and it involves one of the most abundant organisms on earth: bacteria.

NovoNutrients is a Mountain View, California, startup, whose offices lie close to both Facebook and Google. The company is harnessing new technology of synthetic biology or synbio to get bacteria to do our bidding, creating proteins using the same tiny organisms that curdle milk into yogurt and cause innumerable diseases.

NovoNutrients’ product is called Novomeal, and while it is not yet commercially available (the company says late 2019 or early 2020), it holds the promise to not only reduce overfishing, but to help diminish atmospheric carbon dioxide, one of the main culprits in climate change.

How it is able to do this is about as close to a “killing two birds with one stone” as one can get in science.

At the company’s headquarters, bacteria and other single-celled organisms are incubated in large steel vats called bioreactors and are fed industrial carbon dioxide which they convert into proteins that can be processed into a powder to feed fish grown in aquaculture. It sounds simple and too good to be true. But the company thinks it may hold the key to a sustainable future.

“We take untreated industrial emissions of CO2 and we turn them into protein — initially for animal feed and starting in fish farming,” says the company’s Web site.

Since bacteria can be grown in largely unlimited supply, which is not the case for forage fish, the company’s technology holds the promise of beginning to solve two of humanity’s most pressing current problems: global warming and overfishing.

The promises of synbio go way beyond creating fishmeal. Frances Arnold, the winner of this year’s winner of the Nobel Prize in chemistry, is a professor of chemical engineering at the California Institute of Technology. The award was bestowed upon Arnold (who, by the way, lives in La Canada Flintridge), for developing a technique called directed evolution.

Directed evolution is a form of synbio that generates novel enzymes and other biomolecules by tweaking the genetic machinery of bacteria like E-coli. A wonderful explanation of the process can be read here, but essentially the process mutates genes that encode proteins, getting them to make specific proteins that serve a particular need. Arnold has already created several companies like Provivi, that develop products using the method. Some proteins can be used to consume harmful chemicals after, say, an oil spill. Others perform more mundane, but hardly less useful tasks like removing laundry stains.

A key point here is that all of these companies and individuals call California home. That, of course, is no coincidence, as the state remains on the forefront of innovation in biotechnology. We’ve created this site to bring you exactly these kinds of stories, and hope that you will follow us on Twitter and subscribe to our weekly newsletter.

Netflix’s Our Planet takes on California, Talking with your brain, Banning animal dissection, California’s “King Tides”, Threats to California’s artichokes

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Week of May 3, 2019

Here at the California Science Weekly, we are working hard to bring you the most interesting, informative and entertaining stories about science in the state of California. Every week, we pore through hundreds of articles and Web sites to find the top stories that we believe are worthy of your time. We hope you’ll stay with us and share our work with others via Twitter and Facebook. If there is anything you’d be interested in learning more about, send us a note, and let us know.

Marine Science

Netflix’s amazing Our Planet takes a long look at one of California’s iconic coastal ecosystems

For Californians who have not yet had the joyful opportunity to catch Netflix’s new nature show Our Planet, you should click over now and catch episode four, which features long, impossibly beautiful ruminations on California’s coastal environment.

It captures the recovery of the sea otter population around Monterey and features stunning moving images of Monterey kelp forests, one of our most iconic coastal ecosystems. Huge red and black California sheephead (a type of wrasse) gnaw and crush sea urchins, sea lions gambol in huge numbers like playful puppies, and the time-lapses of urchins creeping across the rocky strata are downright terrifying. Given the incredible array of exotic places that the show has been so far, it’s awfully nice to have California recognized as a biological hot spot worthy of such admirable high-definition filmmaking.

California’s kelp beds have been under threat for decades, with some in severe decline. The culprits are purple sea urchins, who consume kelp, preventing them from growing. Years ago, urchins were kept in check by the otter population, which was decimated for the fur trade. The Our Planet episode explains this in some detail.

Kelp is an amazing organism and is a potential ally in the fight against global warming. When free to grow in a healthy environment, kelp grow remarkably fast, up to two feet a day. Kelp absorbs carbon and provides critical habitat and food for more than 800 species of marine animals. Recent warming caused a 60-fold explosion of purple urchins California’s coast, and the kelp was devastated by these ravenous porcupines of the sea. Over the last 100 years, the Palos Verdes Peninsula has lost 75 percent of its kelp forests.

But efforts over the past decade, by organizations like the Santa Monica-based Bay Foundation, are seeking to bring the kelp back by eradicating urchins, often with divers who wield hammers and smash the urchins. So, not exactly pretty, but the efforts have been effective in restoring this incredibly important part of the ecosystem.



Talking with your brain


Scientists at the University of California San Francisco have developed a brain-computer interface to turn brain signals into computer-synthesized speech. It could be a way for people who have lost the ability to speak to communicate.

The so-called ECoG Electrode Array is made up of dozens of electrodes that are implanted on the brain and record brain activity. The computer deciphers the brain’s motor commands and then generates sentences to try to match the speaker’s natural speaking rhythms.

Brain-computer interfaces are not new, not even those that can generate speech. But previous efforts produced about eight words a minute, while this one generates about 150 words a minute, which scientists say is the pace of natural speech.

Here’s the paper in Nature.

New York Times UCSF


Banning animal dissection from biology class


A new California law might outlaw the use of animals like cats and frogs for dissections in science classes. Cats used for dissection tend to be euthanized animals acquired from shelters; frogs and other amphibians are often gathered in the wild.

Those in support of the bill say that killing the animals is cruel and unnecessary. They say kids can get the same or similar educational experience by using models and computer programs. For those who grew up dissecting animals and believe it is an important part of science education, the move is perceived as an attack on time-honored traditions of biology class. Students are allowed under current law allows to opt out of performing dissections if they have a moral objection, but this would be a state-wide ban at public schools.

SacBee Pacific Standard Magazine

Climate Change

California’s King Tides a harbinger of climate change

King tides are a natural phenomenon in California. Every year when there is an alignment of the gravitational pull between sun and moon, tides are literally pulled higher up the shore. Scientists warm, however, that when king tides take place during floods or storms, sea levels can damage the coastline and coastal property. Studies show that California will be greatly impacted by sea level rise, and so the point of the project is to help us visualize future sea level rise by observing the highest high tides of today.

The King Tide Project has a wonderful series of images from earlier this year showing the highest tides around the state.

King Tide Project

Climate Change / Agriculture

California’s artichokes may be threatened by climate change

Climate change is going to have massive impacts around the world and will impact many facets of our lives. But perhaps few other impacts are as important as how it will affect the world’s food supply. California’s economy is largely built on agriculture, and few products are more representative of our food production than the California artichoke. A 2018 report by Agronomy, a peer-reviewed, open access scientific journal, laid out a stark future for California agriculture. The classic California artichoke faces particular threats. A warming ocean and changing the marine layer, which the artichoke depends on, not to mention the spread of pests like the artichoke plume moth, could devastate the state’s artichoke crops.

Similarly, the New York Times looks at various products around the nation and what problems various states may face. As one of the top producers of agricultural products in the world, California faces particular challenges.

New York Times Capital and Main


A map of “wicked weather and deadly disasters” from the Washington Post shows California faring well against tornadoes and hurricanes, but not, alas, against wildfires.

California Sierra’s snowpack is 2.5 times larger than last year. Using Lidar and a spectrometer, this is how NASA’s JPL figures that out.

In case you missed it, the New York Times reports that California’s raisin industry is controlled by a “raisin mafia”.  

Fifty years ago, an oil spill off Santa Barbara became a galvanizing moment for the US environmental movement.

The Golden State Killer case was just the beginning. How DNA will continue to solve crimes.

How palm trees came to define Los Angeles, and why it’s all a myth.

A fantastic story in Wired about the discovery of a new earthquake fault in California.

Fifty years ago, an oil spill off Santa Barbara became a galvanizing moment for the US environmental movement.

The Golden State Killer case was just the beginning. How DNA will continue to solve crimes.

How palm trees came to define Los Angeles, and why it’s all a myth.

A fantastic story in Wired about the discovery of a new earthquake fault in California.

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Design by Luis Ramirez

CalTech’s famous fly lab, Saving California’s rare fruit, Atomic microscope, Winter snowfall earthquakes, Brain enhancement drugs, Mars copter

Week of April 5, 2019

Here at the California Science Weekly, we are working hard to bring you the most interesting, informative and entertaining stories about science in the state of California. Every week, we pore through hundreds of articles and Web sites to find the top stories that we believe are worthy of your time. We will also be writing feature stories, developing a podcast and producing a video series that will take our content offerings to a whole new level. We hope you’ll stay with us and share our work with others via Twitter and Facebook. If there is anything you’d be interested in learning more about, send us a note, and let us know.


An homage to Cal Tech’s fly lab

Credit: Sanjay Acharya

Few critters in the history of science have been as important to our understanding of life as the humble fruit fly. The genus Drosophila melanogaster holds a particularly esteemed spot among the dozens of model organisms that provide insight into life’s inner workings. Much of the work has taken place, and is taking place now, right here in California.

CalTech Magazine has a wonderful story by Lori Dajose about the crucial role the fruit fly has played in science and why we should all revere this underappreciated insect.

The story begins in 1906 at Columbia University in the fly lab Thomas Hunt Morgan, whose work with white-eyed mutants established chromosomes as the pathway of inheritance for genes. Morgan made his way to CalTech in 1928 to found the school’s Division of Biology, and ever since then, the school has been a launching pad for ground-breaking research (and a few Nobel Prizes) using fruit flies.

Other notable names involved in fruit fly research include Ed Lewis, who helped standardize fruit fly food, but more importantly discovered how Hox genes control embryonic development (for which he won the 1995 Nobel Prize) and Seymour Benzer, a pioneer the field of neurogenetics and the subject of one of our favorite science books of all time here at the CSW: Jonathan Weiner’s Time, Love, Memory: A Great Biologist and His Quest for the Origins of Behavior. The breakthroughs made in Benzer’s Fly Rooms form the basis of much of our current understanding of genes and behavior.

The essay goes on to describe the great work that continues at CalTech with researchers like Elizabeth Hong, who is investigating how the brain orders and encodes complex odors, David Anderson, who studies emotions and behaviors, and Michael Dickinson, whose lab investigates how the tiny fruit fly brain gives rise to flight. So much to learn from one little insect and one great institution.

CalTech Magazine


Saving California’s fruit

Credit: C. Todd Kennedy

Two hours south of San Francisco, a lawyer turned horticulturalist named C. Todd Kennedy is helping preserve America’s agricultural legacy.  Todd is one of California’s premier experts on fruit. As a co-founder of the Arboreum Company, he has single-handedly saved numerous rare varieties of so-called stone fruit like peaches, plums, and apricots from possibly disappearing forever.

Atlas Obscura


UCI researchers see life’s vibrations

“Credit: Steve Zylius / UCI

Using a cutting edge new type of microscope, scientists at the University of California, Irvine have for the first time captured images of the way that a molecule vibrates down at the atomic level. These vibrations drive the chemistry of all matter, including the function of living cells. “From structural changes in chemistry to molecular signaling, all dynamical processes in life have to do with molecular vibrations, without which all would be frozen,” said co-author V. Ara Apkarian, a UCI Distinguished Professor of chemistry. 

The breakthrough was published in a paper in the science journal Nature. The advance could open up new ways of seeing and understanding the sub-microscopic/ atomic world. The research was conducted at UCI’s Center for Chemistry at the Space-Time Limit, maybe the coolest name for a lab ever.


Geology and earthquakes

Could winter storms cause earthquakes?

All the snow we’ve been getting in the high Sierras may cause skiers and farmers to rejoice, but a new study from Emily Montgomery-Brown at the US Geological Survey in Menlo Park, California, suggests a connection between the heavy runoff following record snowfall in the Sierra Nevada and small earthquakes. Using historical records, Montgomery-Brown and others have determined that small earthquakes occur 37 times more often when there is high runoff from melting snowpack. One theory is that the water permeates the ground and changes pressures deep down within faults, leading to small quakes.



Are we ready for brain enhancement?

You have probably never heard of Klotho, but according to a story by Carl Zimmer in the New York Times, this mysterious hormone could one day lead to a way to prevent, or even enhance, cognitive ability.

Research on mice by Dr. Dena Dubal at the University of California, San Francisco, suggests that Klotho protects mice from cognitive decline, likely due to Alzheimer’s disease. The mice bred to make extra Klotho also performed better running mazes and in other cognitive tests. “Klotho didn’t just protect their brains, the researchers concluded — it enhanced them,” writes Zimmer. Further research suggests that Klotho could also extend life.

In March, Dr. Dubal released a study suggesting that Klotho may also protect people from Alzheimer’s disease. The Alzheimer’s Association says that 5.8 million Americans are currently living with the debilitating disease.

The bigger question that the piece raises is whether Klotho pills or gene manipulation techniques like Crispr that might stimulate Klotho production, could someday be available to humans for cognitive enhancement. In other words, brain boosting. The idea raises numerous ethical questions such as who would get access and how much would it cost? What if you could pass these enhancements on to your children? “If people could raise their SAT scores by taking a pill the night before an exam,” writes Zimmer, “that might not seem fair.”

The New York Times


NASA’s JPL tests new Mars copter

It’s mind-boggling enough that we’ve been able to explore Mars using rovers big and small. But what if the next step is navigating the red planet with a vehicle that can lift off and soar above the dusty surface?

NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) is testing a new helicopter, a small, autonomous rotorcraft weighing about four pounds, that will travel with the Mars 2020 rover, one of JPL’s most ambitious projects ever. The 2020 rover is currently scheduled to launch in July 2020 and is expected to reach Mars in February 2021. The vehicle has been in development since August 2013 at JPL’s testing facility in La Canada Flintridge, California.

Flying a copter on Mars is a lot more challenging than doing so on earth. The thin atmosphere means that the copter’s blades will have to spin at almost 3,000 rpm, about 10 times the rate of a helicopter on Earth. Then there is the Martian climate with dust storms and temperatures that can fall as low as minus 130 degrees Fahrenheit.

The copter project is only one small part of the larger Mars 2020 mission, and is considered a high-risk, high-reward project. If it fails, it won’t impact the mission’s larger goals, including answering key questions about the potential for life on Mars.

Last year, JPL released this informative video about the project.


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Design by Luis Ramirez