Debunking Cracked

Cracked.com is one of my favorite websites. But today they ran an article on how a biotech company almost killed the world.

I have to assume that this article is a joke, not a serious article. Because if it is serious, it’s incredibly sloppy and poorly researched.

The claim is that scientists tried to modify Klebsiella planticola, a ubiquitous plant bacteria, to produce alcohol when it broke down plants. They were about to release this bacterium into the world when a researcher found out it killed plants. Had it been released, all the plants in the world would have died.

Maybe this story is accurate but it set off my bullshit antennae something fierce.

1) Lack of specifics. We’re told a “European biotech” company was doing this. No name is given; no country is given. This is especially strange given European attitudes toward GM crops. Only vague references are given to the study that saved us all. Someone in the comments pointed me to the PDF. It’s very mild compared to the article’s claims. Cracked tends to exaggerate for humorous effect, but this is a bit far even for them.

2) Google “Klebsiella planticola”. The only thing you will find are fringe anti-GM sites repeating this story. You will also occasionally find claims that the “world will die” study was withdrawn or debunked. The fringe anti-GM sites make me think the article is serious, not satire.

3) I found the website of Dr. Ingham, who is supposed to have saved us. While she has several papers in preparation on Klebsiella planticola on her CV, her bio suspiciously leaves out the part where she saved the world.

4) If this story were real, anti-GM organizations like Greenpeace would be flogging it constantly. Every time someone so much as moved a corn starch gene, we’d hear that “we don’t another Klebsiella planticola”. It would be the Chernobyl or Three Mile Island of genetic engineering.

5) The author, in responding to comments, states that this was ready for “worldwide release”. Given that we can’t persuade countries to accept GM crops that have proven to be safe, this sounds dubious.

I checked out the author’s website for his book. It’s about 20 ways the world could end. One thing he cites is HiPER, a nuclear fusion experiment that could “consume us all in a fiery fusion reaction”, which is laughable.

Again, I have to assume this article, and the book, are a joke. This guy is not a scientist, but a humor writer. But if it is a joke, it’s a poorly disguised one.

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