Tag Archives: mustard

List of secret mustard gas test subjects publicized by NPR

We’ve long known just how damaging extremist governments can be to the lives of the ones they rule over and to the world at large, but it seems that the art of ruling doesn’t leave room for innocence in any part of the world. The NPR was recently investigating into records pertaining to secret experiments and found the names of nearly 4,000 individuals that were exposed to mustard gas. The names are joined by a further 1,700 individuals that the NPR could only find a “last known location” for.

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Mustard gas is a sulfur based compound used for chemical warfare that has the pleasant effect of causing blisters to form on skin and attacking optical tissue it comes into contact with. It can easily penetrate cotton, wool and other common fabrics, so special equipment is needed to protect soldiers against it — and in battle conditions there’s rarely enough to go around.

As the effects on the victims aren’t immediate, manifesting within 24 hours from contact and the pure vapors have no smell, very large doses can be administered to the subject without him or her knowing.

After this time, what starts out as an itch develops into full blown pustules filled with yellowish liquid that cover horrendous chemical burns. In high dosages, if inhaled, it attacks the lungs causing massive bleeding and blistering of the mucous membranes, leading to pulmonary edema.

It was extensively produced by the Imperial German Army starting with 1916 and used extensively in the static, trench-ridden battlefields of World War I, with terrible effect — and their memory lingered in the minds of armed corps world-wide.

So while the tests had the arguably understandable purpose of evaluating protective suits and gas masks, NPR’s investigation revealed something much darker — some trials were designed to look for racial differences (i.e. resistance to the gas) that could be exploited during combat, that required soldiers to be exposed directly to the compound.

And, in classic government fashion, the subjects weren’t even cared for:

“Officials at the Department of Veterans Affairs told NPR that since 1993, the agency had been able to locate only 610 test subjects, to offer compensation to those who were permanently injured,” the NPR page reads.

Considering NPR’s investigation took some 6 months and came up with almost ten times as many names, that’s hard to believe.

Anyway, if you’re curious to know if anyone you know was exposed to mustard gas, you can find a “work-in-progess” list on NPR’s webpage, here.

Like mustard and wasabi? You should thank this catterpillar

In a paper published this month in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, a group of scientists explain the process through which plants like mustard came to be – as it turns out, an evolutionary arms race with a caterpillar played a key role.

The Cabbage Butterfly Caterpillar played a key role in developing plants like mustard or cabbage. Image via Gardening Know How.

Some 90 million years ago, in the Cretaceous, the ancestors of these plants were being eaten by early caterpillars, so they found a way to evolve out of this conundrum: they started making chemicals called glucosinolates, something which bugs don’t really like. Chris Pires, a plant evolutionary biologist at the University of Missouri and one of the lead authors of the study explains:

“Most bugs don’t like it. It’s toxic,” Pires says. “It turns their guts inside out.”

Today, glucosinolates are natural components of many pungent plants such as mustard, cabbage and horseradish – you can simply think of them as a mustard bomb. But it’s not as simple as that – fast forward 10 million years, caterpillars found away against this mechanism; they figured out how to eat mustard and not get sick. So cabbage butterflies started evolving into an entirely different species, the only one who could eat mustard.

But as in any cold war or arms race, the plants weren’t waiting idly for the caterpillars to evolve.

“The plants made a fancier bomb,” Pires says. That is, some plants started using different amino acid ingredients to make new glucosinolates.

Again safe from predators, new species of cabbage and mustard started evolving, and some insects adapted to them, and plants made even stronger substances… and so on. This continuous race is still going on today, and it’s a reminder that the reason plants have scents and flavors at all is to avoid predation (mostly by insects).

“Why do you think plants have spices or any flavor at all? It’s not for us,” Pires, a biologist at the University of Missouri and one of the lead authors of the study, said in a statement. “They have a function. All these flavors are evolution.”

Scientists have long known that plants and insects evolved side by side, but they wanted to look at the whole thing in more detail, so they made evolutionary family trees of both the plants and the butterflies. When they lined them up next to each other, the responses from the arms race became evident: each group was responding to adaptations by the other group. When the butterflies created a new defence, their tree had a new branch, and soon after that, the plants had a new branch. There are three notable events across the 90 million year old history and we should thank these events if we like mustard, cabbage or wasabi.

Peter Raven, professor emeritus of the Missouri Botanical Garden and a former University of Missouri curator who was not involved in the study praised the results, explaining that it confirms patterns of co-evolution that had been suspected, but not confirmed.

“The wonderful array of molecular and other analytical tools applied now under leadership of people like Chris Pires, provide verification and new insights that couldn’t even have been imagined then,” he said.

But this is not just about having a better understanding of plants and how they evolved, it’s also about potentially developing pest-resistant crops through genetics.

“It could open different avenues for creating plants and food that are more efficiently grown,” Pires said.