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The following tape recorded program is a presentation of the National Association of educational broadcasters. You'll be interested to know that the Italian Navigator has just landed in the New World that with the voice of author Compton at the press reported the birth of atomic energy. The best of a new world. This series had been called the New World. Its aim is to outline some of the great benefits that atomic energy is bringing to mankind. The program's up educed by the University of Alabama.
Program 8 atomic energy and crops in Oak Ridge Tennessee in the long low building of a special training division of the Oak Ridge Institute of nuclear studies. We again met Dr. C. L. coma. He achieved landed at the Institute and is well-known for the work he has done in agricultural research using radio isotopes. We ask him to tell us about the new discoveries in plant life that have been made as a result of atomic energy and about the experiments that are now going on. Dr. Kumar brought a colleague into the room and together they sat down to talk about a radioisotopes and crops. Dr. C. L. coma. We have previously discussed the use of atomic energy in agricultural research and studies of animal nutrition and the possible uses of food sterilization by radiation. We would like. To talk about soils and plants because
these are also an important part of agricultural research. DR any Tolbert who is now associated with the biology division of the Oak Ridge National Laboratory and was previously on the staff of the biology branch of the Atomic Energy Commission in Washington D.C. not to talk about it is vitally interested and is actively working in the field of photosynthesis during his tenure at Washington had the opportunity of seeing and grasping the various aspects of research that had been going on in the plant sciences using radioisotopes. Well not a term I want to get down to cases we want to talk about the use of isotopes. As far as plant studies are concerned now looking at the overall picture. Where do you think the big areas of research lie. We have to divide plant research into its two major
aspects. These are the use of isotopes in photosynthesis and basic plant metabolism research. And secondly the use of isotopes in fertilizer research. Well suppose we talk about the work on photosynthesis first. What about the general importance of photosynthesis in our overall economy and life. Photosynthesis is the sole source of energy to us as animals both as a food supply in our crops today and as an energy supply in photosynthesis in the ages gone by which we now use as coal and oil. Well just what type of research is being carried on in photosynthesis today. We are trying to. Figure out the exact details of how a plant is able to convert light
energy into sugars of its constituents. This investigation is easily studied with the use of radioactive carbon since the carbon dioxide that the plant incorporates into its lead can be labeled with this particular tracer. And as I understand it it has not yet been possible to perform the process of photosynthesis outside of the plant. Is that right. That was true up to this year recently. The processes of photosynthesis have been claimed by research investigators using radioactive carbon tracer to have. Done this process in a minute I'm out. Outside of a cell and in a test tube this research has all developed since the advent of the radioactive tracer carbon 14.
Before that time we had little knowledge of how the plant converted carbon dioxide to sugars. This would seem to me to be of tremendous importance. Looking way ahead if it ever were practical to produce a food without the intermediary of the plant is there anything along this line that we were looking forward to. We are looking forward to this in the very distant future at the present time we are simply trying to elucidate the steps in this reaction without paying any attention to the yield from their reaction. Well this is very exciting certainly to me. And how about this own problem that we used to see in the textbooks about the first product of photosynthesis. Has that finally been solved yet. The first product of photosynthesis in the textbooks has always been
written. Carbon dioxide to glucose a sugar. The intermediates in this step are. Now explain that we claim that the first product is fossil glisten acid and that this fossil with syrup acid actor is condensed to the sugars so that we no longer teach that the first product of photosynthesis is a sugar but that the end product of photosynthesis is a sugar and the first product is possible good theri acid and when you say FOSS Fogel Sirica acid this signifies of course that phosphorus is involved. How about the importance of phosphates in this whole process. The importance of phosphate is X is as important as the carbon itself because all of the intermediates in this pathway of conversion of carbon dioxide to sugars all of the intermediates are
phosphate esters and all of these phosphate. Esther's have to arise therefore from phosphorus which comes from the soil. Could you mention some of the laboratory as the investigators who are now actively engaged in this field around the country since 1946. The most active laboratories are as follows. Approximately in the order of activity the University of California at the Radiation Laboratory has been doing outstanding work in carbon 14 radioactive carbon 14 tracer metabolism studies and from a chemical standpoint. Recently using the information from this laboratory biochemists at the National Institutes of Health and at several universities such as the University of
Chicago Yale and also the atomic energy laboratories have looked for the enzymes which catalyze the individual steps in this photosynthesis process a combination of the chemist and the biochemist has made possible putting together now the knowledge that has come in the last 10 years with the use of the tracer. For this process Suppose we go a little aside how about this business of using the plant to synthesize various materials that are useful in medicine and pharmacy. Producing these materials with a radioactive label so that they can be further studied Would you like to comment on that yes. We call that bio synthesis. As you know biosynthesis
means that the synthesis is done biologically. The plants are fed radioactive carbon dioxide and in their growth process they make constituents which are normal to them but which we as animals need for our growth processes and in our pharmaceutical work. This work has been particularly emphasized by the Atomic Energy Commission as it appeared to be a method of producing rare compounds that the chemists cannot synthesise. I understand that considerable progress has been made and that a good many of the important and additional laws on how obtainable is it your impression that is approximately correct it has not been possible to make a great number of them but those that have not been synthesised chemically. Then the research people have come to the plant biochemist and said Can you make
this thing through the plant. And this is true to give you an example. A blood substitute deck Strand. Which is a sugar polymer is very difficult to synthesize chemically but plants and microorganisms make it very easily and therefore these organisms and plants have been fed the radioactive carbon dioxide and have made the compound labeled with carbon 14 in small amounts and that has been handed over to the medical profession to study the possibility of some of these compounds serving as blood substitutes. This is a very important application and of course what we're doing I suspect is letting the plant of the micro organism do the hard job that's just a little bit too hard for our chemists at the present time. Biochemist we like to say that we have that the plant can still do many things that we cannot do chemically and this will probably continue to be true for many years
into the future. I'm sure the biochemist don't feel insulted at this particular statement. Suppose we now turn to the other orange peel that you mentioned. And this is the overall problem of fertilizers and soils and just what is being done in this area of research. Just to reiterate what you said briefly. The plan for its growth must have carbon dioxide and life of the other things it must have. Are all of the nutrients from the soil without all three of these constituents it cannot grow. The art of fertilization is been exceedingly important to agriculture and especially since there is no more land to be explored and we have to not increase the productivity of our farmland that we have up until the advent of isotopes. The best that could be done in fertilizer research involves putting non
radioactive fossil fertilizers on the soil and simply observing whether the plant grew better or not. This would be a pretty hard job one that you'd have to almost waiting for the entire growing season to see whether you had any response. That's correct and also all you got was a gross result. It was grew better or it didn't. You did not have any idea where the fertilizer was working in the plant whether. The application of the fertilizer in different levels or different distances from the plant were very efficient. Also you had the variables of weather. I mean if you did this in a dry year you might have no response or as if the weather conditions were right you might get a large response so you wouldn't know whether what you were saying was due to the fertilizer always due to some of these other conditions. That's right now when fertilizers became labeled with radioactive fossil fate also we have calcium in our fertilizers we can use and label
radioactive calcium label. We can use tracers up some of the other minerals such as potassium but primarily we have use calcium and phosphorus. All you have to do now is it take some of these materials as they come to us from the Atomic Energy Commission and put them on the soil. The plant immediately becomes radioactive. If the plant takes up any of the radioactive tracer fertilizer. Now I know that you have done work activity in this field so. Perhaps you can tell us a little bit about how radioactive phosphate is applied to the soil. Well Dr. Tolbert I'd be glad to comment very briefly. Actually most of the fertilizer work is being done I should say centered at the U.S. Department of Agriculture in their program which is supported by the Atomic Energy Commission and they have
been labeling various phosphorus fertilizers and shipping them out all over the country so that the efficiency of fertilizer use can be measured with various crops with various soil conditions under various weather conditions. And so give me you mean they supply the radioactive fertilizers to all of the agricultural experiment stations in each state. That's why they have had a widespread distribution program. And some of the fertilizer. And I wanted to make them radioactive require specialized equipment and it seemed economical to have this done in one center and the USDA people very graciously consented to do this and so they were able to have a coordinated program and where the results would be comparable between the various states and I think this has been a very fine thing. Also it is possible to devise tests which can measure
the actual availability of the phosphorus that is naturally occurring in the soil. And this is very important and the principle here is that if a plant has its choice of two forms of phosphorus in the soil that is a natural layer occurring phosphorus and the applied fertilizer phosphorus. It will utilize the phosphorus in the order of the availability so that in this way by having a standard label phosphorous to the soil it is possible to get a measure of the availability of the natural style phosphorus. And I believe that this will be an important finding. Another very interesting procedure has been one that was I believe developed at North Carolina. Whereby it was possible to determine the location of the roots of a plant in the soil at given times during the growing season. And this was
done by placing in the soil at known locations a small amount of radioactive material. Then of course when the root happened to reach that particular location it absorbs the radioactive material and the leaves become radioactive. This via had allies eying the leaves for radioactivity one Karen judge immediately the turn of a matter which the route did reach the location in question. Well Dr. Tolbert we've been talking about studies where radioactive material actually gets into the plant. Now how about the hazard of this material. We do not use amount that is harmful in any degree either to ourselves or to the public who may come in contact with the work and also all the Atomic Energy Commission through its isotopes division and advisory feel
service is able to advise prevent any possible use of radioisotopes that would be a tall hazard. Yes indeed you cannot even get one of these isotopes to do research with and fertilizer research unless you have the permission of the commission who has investigated your competency to do the work. Well I think this is a very important point and leads up to the problem of the detection and measurement. Now if we are using such low levels of radioactive material for all the studies all these materials very hard to measure. No they are not with the instruments we have available. The first measurement done in the field on these fertiliser experiment is somewhat similar to that which a problem prospector for uranium might do. We have instruments we take into the field which can detect the
radiation and the radioactivity in the plant itself which is growing on the radioactive fertilizers. This is not a very accurate method of analysis but. It gives us a quick answer in the field. Then for more accurate analyses the plants are harvested and brought into the laboratory where they are carefully analyzed by chemical means and radioactive counting on the leaf or root sample itself. No I'm coming back to the idea. We were talking about in regard to the location of the roots in the soil. The practical application of this of course is to tell us just how best to place the fertilizer so that the plant can get it at the time that it needs it.
And these studies as I understand them have shown that certain crops will have a rather shallow rooting early in the growing season and others may have a deep rooting. And so. It is now possible to actually place the fertilizer to fit the location of the root and this of course I think will lead to more efficient management. I wonder if we can look a little bit to the future perhaps and foresee any other ideas that might be forthcoming. One possibility that scientists are thinking about today and actually doing some work on is the use of radiation in genetic breeding better strains of crops.
How are you as an example. We have peanuts which are not easy to grow because they are susceptible to a disease. It is possible that another strain of peanuts might not be successes except the bone to this disease. But so far the investigators have not been able to find a wild type of peanut resistant. Therefore the thought is that by radiating the peanuts it would be possible to produce a new mutant which would be resistant to this disease. Now this is based on the principle that the radiation will increase the rate of mutation radiation does the geneticist tells us increase the rate of mutation.
Most of these mutations are harmful to the individual. But if there is a beneficial mutation that particular plant which survives can then be the breeding stock for a whole new species of peanuts. In this case. Now this of prices are an extension of classical plant breeding studies I suppose. Exactly and. What work is actually underway now if any. Well we're talking now about future possible benefits in agricultural research. The peanut program has been underway for several years but without success so far and by that I mean the success that is reflected in industry also at Brookhaven National Laboratory on Long Island. This is an ATC laboratory.
They have been irradiating for corn and several other crops looking for hybrids. Our new species are mutants which have characteristic growth then a fax from the effect of radiation. How is this one actually usually the way that is done at Brookhaven. Do they have a radiation source in the middle of a big field. Then they have planted their crops in the field around this source. When the radioactive material is lowered deep in the ground so that the platters themselves are not harmed. And then after everybody has left the field they raise the source up in the air and expose the plant to the radiation to the radioactive material. They let them grow there all summer long and harvest the seeds in the fall. The crop that is raised in these this is a radiation field produces seeds which may be muted or which are a different species from the original parent.
When these new seeds are planted the plant breeding breeders doing the work then look for traits in the second generation of corn plants which may be more resistant to a particular disease or which may be a higher yield or corn. Now all of this work is being done behind guarded areas at Brookhaven and elsewhere so that nobody comes near the radioactive material during the exposure period. This again is very important. Very few experiments would be worth risking any injury to the experimenter and I would again emphasize that experience has shown that these things can be done with absolute safety to the investigator and to the general public. I wonder if the radiation is being used in this particular experiment.
I've been told that these radiation sources are from cobalt bombs not cobalt bomb does not mean that it is a bomb in the sense that we use it in war. It's simply a COBOL source prepared at Oakridge by the Atomic Energy Commission which is radioactive and is equivalent to many many series of radium. In other words if it were not for the production of a radio isotopes in the reactor it would be almost impossible to do an experiment of this type it would be impossible. These particular radiation is from Cobalt or primarily and gamma rays are very penetrating through the distance and thus enable the radiation of a fairly large area. I realize Dr. Truong but it's much too early to have any results from these types of experiments. And being conservative
I think we have to be optimistic and not be pessimistic about the future such type of experiment. I agree with you completely I'd like to point out that from the individual peanut or corn standpoint this radiation isn't very good for the individual. It might if the survival of one or two better species is it's fine for us humans who eat the corn plants. But it isn't a thing that we will do with animals or humans. And even the success of the program in plant breeding has not been proven. Well Dr. told work I say we are all in agreement. As we look at agricultural research from a broad perspective. That is to say flaying saw those scenes of research. We are. Well as I say in agreement
that the outlook is certainly bright as far as increasing our production and eventually raising our standard of living. We know that improved agriculture is and this country will do that for our own people and I am sure that as we make available to other countries of the world both our research efforts and any improvement that we can make ourselves that this will have widespread benefits for the rest of the world. Dr. C.L. Komarr chief scientist at the Oak Ridge Institute of nuclear studies was talking in Oakridge to Dr. indeed told dad who is now working in the biology division of the Oak Ridge National Laboratory. After serving in the biology branch of the Atomic Energy Commission in Washington DC.
New world of atomic energy
Atomic energy and crops
Producing Organization
University of Alabama
Oak Ridge Institute
Contributing Organization
University of Maryland (College Park, Maryland)
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Episode Description
This program features the voices of Dr. C.L. Comar of Oak Ridge and Dr. N.E. Tolbert discussing potential agricultural uses of nuclear energy.
Series Description
About peacetime uses of atomic energy, with experts from Oak Ridge and other atomic energy centers.
Broadcast Date
Agriculture--United States--History--20th century.
Media type
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Interviewee: Comar, C. L. (Cyril Lewis), 1914-
Interviewee: Tolbert, N. E. (N. Edward), 1919-
Producer: Gouds, Moyra
Producing Organization: University of Alabama
Producing Organization: Oak Ridge Institute
AAPB Contributor Holdings
University of Maryland
Identifier: 56-7-8 (National Association of Educational Broadcasters)
Format: 1/4 inch audio tape
Duration: 00:28:45
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Chicago: “New world of atomic energy; Atomic energy and crops,” 1956-02-19, University of Maryland, American Archive of Public Broadcasting (GBH and the Library of Congress), Boston, MA and Washington, DC, accessed January 28, 2023,
MLA: “New world of atomic energy; Atomic energy and crops.” 1956-02-19. University of Maryland, American Archive of Public Broadcasting (GBH and the Library of Congress), Boston, MA and Washington, DC. Web. January 28, 2023. <>.
APA: New world of atomic energy; Atomic energy and crops. Boston, MA: University of Maryland, American Archive of Public Broadcasting (GBH and the Library of Congress), Boston, MA and Washington, DC. Retrieved from