Uncle Santa Claus keeps on giving

Wednesday, January 9, 2013   |   Posted by Jim Hightower
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Good news, America. At last, scientists are grappling with a persistent affliction that can strike without warning, causing anxiety for millions of families every year. It's the tragedy of needle drop.

No, not drug injection needles. Christmas tree needles.

Each December, you search out the finest and freshest conifer, pay good money for it, give it water and love, decorate it beautifully – and how does it repay you? Within two to four weeks, the ingrate is shedding needles all over your carpet! It's the scourge of Christmas, I tell you.

But take heart, for your tax-funded land-grant colleges are on the way to rescue you and all other needle-drop sufferers. Specifically, plant pathologists at Washington State University, North Carolina State, and elsewhere have mounted a $1.3 million RNA-sequencing trial. They're sampling branches from thousands of trees in search of that one nucleotide polymorphism that controls needle drop.

This heroic mission requires remarkable attention to detail. For example, in Puyallup, Washington, a research specialist lifts each of several thousand sample branches in her lab one by one, rubs her fingers up and down each stem, then counts the needles that fall from each one. Another specialist enters the number into an ever-spreading spreadsheet. It's a tedious job, but someone has to do it.

Or, not. Really, of all the problems facing American consumers and agriculture, should Christmas tree needle retention be this high on our list of research priorities? "Well," responds the chief needle-drop pathologist at Washington State, "the Christmas tree industry is a $1 billion industry."

Exactly! So let this profitable industry pay for its own research, rather than diverting our tax funds and government scientists from more important work that will produce much greater public benefit.

"Research lab sets out to build a better Christmas tree," Austin American Statesman, December 23, 2012.

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