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Engineered Corn Communicates, Crunches Numbers
January 14, 2047
LINCOLN, NE--A team of researchers at the University of Nebraska announced this week the successful growth and testing of a new strain of corn endowed with rudimentary computational abilities. The strain, to be marketed by University of Nebraska sponsor Monsanto under the brand name SmartCorn, makes use of principles of distributed, networked computation to communicate information about the health and condition of the plant and to solve computation-intensive problems. "Our goals with SmartCorn were twofold," notes Monsanto VP of Corn and Pomegranates Leslie Studebaker, "first, to help growers gather information about their plants, and second, to generate surplus computational cycles that growers could sell on the open market. I'm happy to say that these recent results indicate that we've found the solution we were looking for."
SmartCorn makes use of "genetic" or "DNA" computation in which genetically planned biologic processes function in computer-like ways to solve problems and to generate and follow algorithms. "Basically, SmartCorn includes an additional set of chromosomes responsible for development of computational organelles and structures," explains Nebraska Professor of Bioinformatics Jules Gasse. "In conjunction with additional modifications to the traditional NovaLink genome, this genetic material gives SmartCorn notable computational power."
In addition to its computer power, SmartCorn is also equipped with networking functionality. Each stalk dynamically generates "micropollens" that encode information, and tag it with a destination and origin address tied to a stalk-identifying signature composed of a series of genetic polymorphisms. The leaves of each plant "route" information by duplicating and spreading micropollens addressed to other plants, and absorbing and processing instructions and data that match their genetically encoded address.
"We call SmartCorn a smart crop/dumb network solution," notes Professor Gasse. "We were willing to sacrifice efficiency on the networking side just to get access to the phenomenal computational power involved. Imagine all of the cornfields in the Midwest functioning as one giant super-computer. We would probably be able to discover a new prime number every growing season!"
Growers can communicate with their SmartCorn crops through a pollen-generating interface box that connects to a computer through a standard USB2 port. Using special software, growers can "harvest" the excess processor cycles generated by the crop and auction them off through an automated exchange.
More importantly, growers can also gather information about the health of the crop, and send instructions into the field, including instructions for individual plants. "One of the interactive instruction sets we're looking at will connect SmartCorn to the irrigation controls so individual plants can request water as-needed," explains Professor Gasse. "The increase in yield and efficiency alone would be spectacular."
Contacted about the SmartCorn announcement, FDA officials confirmed that the new plant is undergoing fast-track testing for human consumption-grade use. "We're very confident on Federal approval," indicates Monsanto VP Studebaker. "To be frank, we paid more attention to our focus groups, who all rated SmartCorn at least as tasty as NovaLink, and, on average, more flavorful than AuntMableSupreme. That's the kind of approval we're looking for."
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