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Sources: Harold Trick, 785-532-1426, hnt@k-state.edu;
Kasandra Farmer, farmer2@k-state.edu;
and Jessica Savage, jwsavage@k-state.edu
News release prepared by: Nellie Ryan, 785-532-6415, media@k-state.edu

Thursday, Dec. 3, 2009

K-STATE BIOTECHNOLOGY STUDENTS UNCOVER SCIENTIFIC ERRORS IN TELEVISION SHOW 'CSI: MIAMI'

MANHATTAN -- A highly rated television show that uses science to help solve crimes may be committing some scientific errors of its own, according to students at Kansas State University.

As a class assignment, the students in a biotechnology class taught by K-State's Harold Trick, professor of plant pathology, checked out a recent episode of "CSI: Miami" and discovered several errors and misconceptions about agriculture and genetically engineered crops.

"The show just totally missed the boat," Trick said. "They were just spouting a lot of half-truths about biotech agriculture. So, one of my assignments was to have students go online and watch the episode and then discuss what was right and what was wrong about the show."

The episode, "Bad Seed," was focused on two people who had become ill -- one with E. coli, the other with botulism. Investigators in the show traced the botulism back to a local farmer who had genetically engineered his corn crop with a gene that would make corn more digestible for cows.

"Corn is digestible anyway so it's not something that is an issue," said Kasandra Farmer, senior in bioscience and biotechnology, Wamego. "No farmer would probably ever do this. If you come from any type of agricultural background you know that corn is digestible or human beings wouldn't eat it."

Another error in the show is that farmers do not genetically engineer their own plants -- it is typically large companies that do this, Trick said. The U.S. Department of Agriculture and other federal agencies have a stringent approval process for genetically altered crops, so the farmer in "CSI: Miami" would never have received approval to grow his plants, according to Trick.

"The show didn't have a very good understanding of how the genetically engineered crops are actually made or how they are regulated," Trick said. "A lot of the biotech terminologies were mixed together, and the show's producers portrayed engineered crops in a very negative fashion, at one point calling them 'Frankenfoods.' Even though the show is a fictional crime drama, the public might believe that this is actually the case."

The E. coli was traced back to the same local farmer who allowed the runoff from his cows' feces and urine to contaminate his crop irrigation system. In a real-life situation, Trick said, farmers would have adequate runoff systems in place that would lead the feces to a nearby lagoon instead of the irrigation system.

Jessica Savage, senior in bioscience and biotechnology, Alma, said another error was how long it took for the characters to come down with their symptoms. "The man who had botulism, his symptoms should show up the day after, and it actually took him two weeks," she said.

Trick said that false portrayals like this one happen frequently in pop culture and can have a huge impact on peoples' viewpoints on topics like genetically engineered crops.

"In my biotechnology class, I try to relay the message that information and stories out there in the news and in pop culture are not necessarily the truth," Trick said. "You really need to have a critical eye and you have to take issues on a case-by-case basis."

Savage said while shows like "CSI: Miami" don't have any influence on her opinion, she has seen firsthand how they can impact others.

"I know people who practice the science of genetically engineering crops that get really upset when they see shows like this that are almost poking fun at trying to genetically modify things," Savage said. "Biotechnology is actually a really awesome and promising science."