Tuesday, November 24, 2015


A few months ago I was interviewed by Story Preservation Initiative. What started out as a nice interview about What A Plant Knows, developed into a discussion about how to feed the world, and then to a discussion about what are mistakenly called "GMOs", or what I prefer to call, the use of genetic engineering in agriculture. In most of the interviews connected to my book, I've shied away from going head on into my opinions on genetic engineering,mainly because i didn't want to shift the attention away from the book. But in this interview, when asked, I couldn't hold back any longer, and launched into a 10 minute monologue. Apparently, once I let loose, i couldn't stop.

While the interview was recorded as a discussion, it was edited into a monologue of over an hour, which you can access here. Below is the part pertaining to genetic engineering.

Monday, October 5, 2015

2015 Nobel Prize highlights importance of botanical chemistry

1600 years ago, a Chinese physician wrote in a book called "Emergency Prescriptions Kept Up One's Sleeve", that soaking a plant now known as Artemisia annua  in water, and then drinking the juice, can reduce fever. This text was rediscovered in the second half of the 20th century by a then obscure Chinese pharmacologist, Tu Youyou. Ms Tu was working on a secret project to find a novel cure for malaria. She found that artemisia extract was highly efficient in combating the malaria parasite. Her work led to the development of the drug artemisinin, which is now widely used in malaria treatment in Africa.  Ms. Tu's role in the discovery of artemisinin remained hidden from the West for most of her life. But now at the age of 85, she has been recognized with the 2015 Nobel Prize in Medicine for her work
An illustration describing Ms Tu's work displayed during the press conference announcing the winners of the Nobel Medicine Prize. Linked from and The Telegraph: Nobel Prize for Chinese traditional medicine expert who developed malaria cure. Photo: AFP

This reminds us that many of our medicines have their roots in botany. The ancient Greek physician Hippocrates described a bitter substance, now known to be salicylic acid, from willow bark that could ease aches and reduce fevers. Other cultures in the ancient Middle East also used willow bark as a medicine, as did Native Americans. Centuries later, we know salicylic acid as the chemical precursor for aspirin (which is acetylsalicylic acid), and salicylic acid itself is a key ingredient in many modern anti-acne face washes.

The Pacific Yew is a conifer found primarily in the Pacific Northwest. Its thin scaly back would probably go unnoticed if not for the fact that it contains a chemical called paclitaxel, or more commonly known as the chemotherapy drug Taxol. Taxol was discovered in the mid 1960s as part of a large-scale program to identify natural products which might be used against cancer. In 1992 Taxol was approved by the FDA for use in fighting breast, ovarian and lung (and a few other) cancers.

And what would life be like without the opium poppy, the source of morphine or codeine. The medicinal (and likely recreational) uses of opium poppy have been known for thousands of years. And the increasingly legal uses of cannabinoids in western medical protocols cannot be ignored.

These are prime examples of how a deep knowledge of botanical diversity and chemistry can lead to incredibly important applications.

Unfortunately, education towards and development of expertise in these fields over the past decades were not a priority for many universities, where plant biology outside of the study of model organisms was looked down upon. At Tel Aviv University we've recognized the importance of botanical pharmacology. As Dean of the Faculty of Life Sciences, together with the Dean of the Faculty of Medicine, we have initiated a search for a botanical pharmacologist whose position will be divided between our two Faculties, between plant biology and pharmacology. Such interdisciplinary research is critical for exploiting the medicinal potential hidden in plants.

Sunday, September 13, 2015

My take on feeding the world

A few months ago I was interviewed by Story Preservation Initiative. What started out as a nice interview about What A Plant Knows, developed into a discussion about global food security and the role of genetic engineering in agriculture. The interview was edited into a monologue of over an hour, which you can access here. Below is the part pertaining to feeding the world.

Want the bottomline? (1) Increase yield per water unit; (2) reduce food loss from field to fridge and food waste from fridge to trash; (3) modify our diet; (4) adopt technology.

Monday, September 7, 2015

Hawking Food Security in India

I’ve found myself in many bizarre situations. None though perhaps surpasses what I did last week. I hawked Tel Aviv University programs at an Indian trade-fair aimed at the food industry.

I was the guest of the Confederation of Indian Industries trade show called FOODPRO 2015. I have been interacting with CII for almost two years as co-chair of the India-Israel Forum sub-group on Food Security. I was one of the guest speakers for the conference part of the event. That in itself is not so bizarre – I’ve given talks over the years to diverse audiences. But what was bizarre is that they asked us also to man a booth in the exhibition part of the trade-show. So one of the 250 exhibitors at Chennai’s FOODPRO 2015 was the Manna Program for Food Safety and Security at Tel Aviv University. At both #35, we handed out flyers about our summer program and sang the praises of Tel Aviv University. To our right in booth #36 was CoCo Rain – “100% pure tender coconut water”. To our left in booth # 34 was Chennai Food Testing, a chemical service lab. Across the aisle in booth 112, Kookmate had a large exhibit of industrial cooking machines including an automatic chipati maker. Other booths included spice grinders, chicken pluckers, and sweet coffee machines. Booth H43-A belonged to "Spanker International". We didn't spend much time there.

Maya running our booth.
Obviously, Maya Oren, the Program Director at Manna, in her sleeveless back dress, and me with light brown hair, and our promoting an advanced educational program, stood out among the sari-clad women and tika-adorned men selling ice cream machines, rice makers and automatic mixers. Our stall was frequented by an endless stream of curious visitors, most long past university age, who eagerly snapped pictures (especially of Maya), took home TAU leaflets, and especially, our keyfobs. Many of the conversations bordered on the absurd – “In which part of India Tel Aviv is?”, “What are you selling?”, “Are you interested in puffballs?”. It was like touring around India, while staying in one place. We quickly adopted the head bob, which we found made us more understood.

Without a doubt, most of our time was spent more in promoting Israel awareness than in attracting students. But we also met a group of motivated college students studying entrepreneurship who surrounded us, excited about the possibility of studying in the “start-up” nation. They were at the fair as part of a class on agro innovation. And we met a number of industrialists, who found in Tel Aviv University a novel option to the American universities they had been considering for their children. And we bought spices – 8 different types of curry for $5. I thought of taking home a chipati maker, but it wouldn’t fit in my suitcase.

Sunday, August 30, 2015

My Pen Pal, Oliver Sacks

As a kid, I dreamt of having a pen pal in a faraway place. A pen pal who could be a confidant, and with whom I could share ideas and experiences, and who would teach me about the strange world he lived in. In those days before Facebook and WhatsApp, before chatrooms and discussion groups, the words “Dear Pen Pal”, which I had seen romanticized on television and in cinema, seemed to me magical, as did the closing “your friend, “.

I did try a few times, through organized school activities, to write to a pen pal, but I don’t remember these efforts lasting more than one exchange. This need for an unknown pen pal probably found a proxy after age 11, in the numerous letters I wrote to friends across the country I had made while away at camp each summer.

Until I turned 51 that is.

One day, while sifting through the mail in my office, I found a letter with a hand-written address to me, and in the return address was printed “Dr. Oliver Sacks, New York”. I remarked to a friend who happened to be visiting in my office at the time, “Olive Sacks. Who is Oliver Sacks? Isn’t that the neurobiologist who wrote The Man who Mistook his Wife for a Hat?”. Why would he be writing me?

Inside I found a 3-page letter, hand-written by fountain pen in a flowing script. I admit that I had to remember for a second how to read script, I’d grown so use to email. Oliver wrote to tell me how much he enjoyed reading What a Plant Knows” and then went on to tell me of his own experience as a botanist, his quest for understanding what consciousness is, and how he related to my book.

Needless to say I was flabbergasted. I spent the next six hours crafting a reply, which I realized would also have to be written by hand. Numerous attempts found their way to the trash bin as I scratched out mistakes and misspellings. How did we survive without spell-check and backspace? I wanted to come across as erudite, but not pompous, casual, but not disrespectful. What could I write to the great Oliver Sacks which would at all interest him?

As the letter was hand-written, and I didn’t think to snap a picture of it, I don’t recall what I wrote. I’m sure it had to do with plant biology and plant intelligence.  I signed it, “Sincerely yours, Danny Chamovitz”, put it in an envelope (after I found one of those arcane things) and sent it off to New York.

3 weeks later I received another hand-written letter, again 3 pages long, and with a copy of his soon-to-be-published piece in the New York Review of Books, “TheMental Life of Plants and Worms, Among Others” where he gave some mention to my book. Again I was flabbergasted, especially as he signed it this time, “your friend, Oliver”. 

There it was. I had a pen pal.

Oliver and I corresponded several more times. I visited with him in Jerusalem, where I had the honor of interviewing him as a public lecture. He hosted my wife Shira and I for lunch in his apartment in New York. We corresponded after his announcement of his impending doom, and we corresponded a few weeks ago. In his letters he was full of life and wonder of our world, questioning me on any new studies on the abilities of plants, and telling me of his latest projects. I would write back with some details of obscure experiments, and comment on articles he quoted to me, and I would close with “Your friend, Danny”.

In our short friendship I learned humility, curiosity and the importance of intellectual honesty. And courage. Many people will mourn the loss of one of our age’s great communicators of the mind. I mourn the loss of my pen pal.