A blog post about tomato and tobacco plants

This is a two-part story so bear with me. On Bluesky, someone I follow posted an article by Science News about tomato and tobacco plants and their ability to “emit distinct ultrasonic clicks”. The research was published in Volume 186, Issue 7 of Cell under the title “Sounds emitted by plants under stress are airborne and informative”. Here’s the summary:

Stressed plants show altered phenotypes, including changes in color, smell, and shape. Yet, airborne sounds emitted by stressed plants have not been investigated before. Here we show that stressed plants emit airborne sounds that can be recorded from a distance and classified. We recorded ultrasonic sounds emitted by tomato and tobacco plants inside an acoustic chamber, and in a greenhouse, while monitoring the plant’s physiological parameters. We developed machine learning models that succeeded in identifying the condition of the plants, including dehydration level and injury, based solely on the emitted sounds. These informative sounds may also be detectable by other organisms. This work opens avenues for understanding plants and their interactions with the environment and may have significant impact on agriculture.

I thought it was really interesting but I noticed the test subjects in this study—tomato and tobacco plants—and, being the Simpsons fan that I am, I immediately thought of S11E5 [E-I-E-I-(Annoyed Grunt)] and Homer’s hybrid plant, the tomacco. He bred the plant on the old farm he lived on with his parents and it became a dangerously addictive and radioactive vegetable. While verifying the existence and spelling of tomacco, I found a Wired article about a man named Rob Baur who tried to make a tomacco plant himself. Surprisingly, it worked:

[…] Rob Baur of Lake Oswego, Oregon, dreamed of bringing to life his favorite The Simpsons episode, one from 1999 in which Homer grows “tomacco,” a combination tomato-tobacco plant. Even though it tastes foul and has a brown, gooey center, the entire town becomes addicted to the fruit after one bite, and Homer gets rich.

Baur grafted a tomato plant onto tobacco roots, and voilà, he had a real, live tomacco plant. The two plants can successfully become one because they come from the same plant family, which also includes eggplant and the deadly nightshade. The tomacco even bore fruit, although Baur said he believes it’s poisonous because it likely contains a lethal amount of nicotine.

The leaves were lab tested to confirm it was a true hybrid plant and it was and the leaves were confirmed to contain nicotine, although the actual fruit wasn’t. Still, remarkable feats of plant biology on both counts.

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