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Chemical Eye on Four Weedlings and a Floral Moral
by Preston MacDougall


September 29, 2005

Once upon a time - actually it was 15 years ago - I was invited to Marburg, Germany, in order to give a lecture and collaborate with a professor who was just getting his research group started. This was quite an honor since some of the most famous names in chemistry have called the quaint town of Marburg home: Bunsen's name burns ever brightly, and Hückel's "4n + 2" still rules.

jpg Preston MacDougall

But I was a young father at the time, just getting my family started, so the writings of two other Marburgers were more likely to have been among my nightly readings: Jacob and Wilhelm, better known as the Grimm Brothers. Just for fun, one day in der Waschraum at Philipps-Universität, I said to a reflection of myself:

Mirror, mirror, on the wall,
Who is the greatest chemist of them all?

To my complete surprise, the mirror responded as follows:

You, Herr MacDougall, are clever it is true,
But Little Edelweiss is still
A thousand times cleverer than you.

I sing along when I watch "The Sound of Music", but still had no idea what this meant. That is until recently, when I read "The Botany of Desire" - a book written by Michael Pollan presenting his take on "a plant's-eye view of the world." Published by Random House in 2001, I highly recommend it to nature lovers, whether you talk to your Ficus benjamina or not.

"Little Edelweiss" made sense when Pollan wrote that "Plants are nature's alchemists." Now, I have known about photosynthesis since middle school, and on top of organic and biochemistry, I took a whole course on natural products chemistry as an undergraduate. So I am fairly up on the wondrous synthetic pathways that plant cells - with their army of nanoscale enzymes that are fueled with just air, water and sunshine - use to convert the "dross of compost" into a virtual pharmacopoeia.

I just had not thought about this in the extremely anthropomorphic way that Pollan does. In a nutshell, the root of his hypothesis is that the cloning of Delicious apples, the breeding of picture-perfect tulips, the cultivation of potent marijuana, and the Roundup-readying of potatoes, all seem, to us, like clear examples of human engineering with the purpose of satisfying desires of segments of society. However, to the plants, rather the ones chosen by us as best satisfying our desires, our technologies are simply evolution's express lanes.

As Pollan succinctly puts it, Darwin's focus on artificial vs. natural selection "is a distinction without a difference" from the plant's point of view. He might have been doing some "cultivating" of his own, but whatever planted the idea in his head, it's a beauty!

The book is divided into four chapters, each one tracing the family tree, so to speak, of a species in the plant kingdom that has played a major role in human society. Some of the historical twists and turns that brought the four main characters - apples, tulips, marijuana and potatoes - from weeds in the wilderness to a supermarket (or street corner) near you, provide some comic relief, such as the tulipomania that peaked in Holland in 1637.

Believe it or not, the boom and bust in the tulip market had all the frenzy of the dot-com bubble. On second thought, I guess it wasn't so funny for any Dutchman, let's call him Burt, who spent his life savings on the rights to the next generation of a particular tulip bulb, only to find that two days later, when the market had crashed, tulips themselves had been vilified by the people in Holland.

Mainly, though, Pollan seriously examines how the desires that we humans have, gave the respective plants the "legs" they lacked to spread around the globe. Even to places that are inhospitable naturally, such as irrigated apple orchards in California's Mojave Desert. As Pollan tells the story, the desire for sweetness is the secret to the apple's success. Here, the real legs provided by Johnny Appleseed give the book a fairytale tone. Actual myths are also used to good effect, such as that of the Greek god of wine, Dionysus, in the author's link between the desire for intoxication and the unstoppable evolution of marijuana.

Like any Grimm story, there must be a moral. I think it can be pruned down to this: From a plant's perspective, people are bees too. There is a key difference though. Instead of arranging random sexual mating, as bees do, gardeners are excellent match-makers. Unless they are into cloning - that takes all the fun out of the Burts and the bees.

Preston MacDougall is a chemistry professor at Middle Tennessee State University. His "Chemical Eye" commentaries are featured in the Arts and Public Affairs portion of the Nashville/Murfreesboro NPR station WMOT (


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