Generative Art, Rootworm Evolution

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A 'sheep' created by Electric Sheep. Image: Überraschungsbilder/Wikipedia

A ‘sheep’ created by Electric Sheep.
Image: Überraschungsbilder/Wikipedia

What do we call evolution that plays with the toys we provide, jumps the obstacles we set, which meets us on the field of our own choosing, and then bests us?

In the case of the shared technology created by Scott Draves for creating ever-changing, computer-human collaborations of software art known as Electric Sheep, we call each new creation a ‘sheep’.

In the case of Bt corn, we call it the ‘rootworm’. This little fellow has evolved both immunity to and an appetite for the very corn that was genetically modified to be resistant to the rootworm (Diabrotica virgifera virgifera).

Actually, Bacillus thuringiensis corn, or Bt corn, was genetically engineered to produce insecticidal toxins derived from the bacterium Bacillus thuringiensis (Bt) in order to kill pest insects and reduce the use of conventional insecticides.

Mature corn rootworm beetles. Photo: Univ. of Nebraska/FreeGeorge

Mature corn rootworm beetles.
Photo: Univ. of Nebraska/FreeGeorge

How did the rootworm turn the nifty trick of learning to love the plant created to kill it? It didn’t do it alone – it needed our help. If environmental recommendations had been followed, which is to say, if the GM corn fields had been interspersed with non-GM corn fields at given intervals (50% was the original recommendation, pushed down to 5 – 20% by seed companies and the Environmental Protection Agency, the rootworm might have stuck to the tasty, non-resistant corn, thus leaving intact the resistant corn’s viability.

But apparently, these recommendations were not followed. Or maybe they were, and the insect’s genetic evolution is just that creative. At any rate, now the pest feeds on both kinds of corn. And a second GM type of corn as well.

I should mention that for the short glory period of ten years during which Bt resistant corn was introduced by Monsanto and remained rootworm-resistant, the GM corn became the leading corn crop in the United States. It now makes up three-quarters of all corn grown there.

The Electric Sheep project has been ongoing since 1999 and comes up with ever new iterations of ‘sheep’, lovely swirls of ever changing software DNA, pleasing to the eye and in constant motion.

The evolutionary project of the rootworm has been going on for over four million years, and apparently, it’s also still in constant motion.

Happy Vernal Equinox!

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