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Fresh From 'Simpsons,' Tomacco Becomes a Reality

By Leanne Potts
Of the Journal
    Once again, reality has imitated "The Simpsons." Last year the Albuquerque Dukes became the Albuquerque Isotopes after a 2001 episode of the show depicted Homer Simpson protecting his beloved triple-A baseball team the Springfield Isotopes from the paws of an unnamed, franchise-thievin' Albuquerque mayor. Homer spoke, and we listened.
    Now a "Simpsons" fan in Oregon has crossed a tomato plant with a tobacco plant to create a new bit of weirdo flora he calls a tomacco (pronounced tuh-MACK-o). His inspiration: a 1999 episode of "The Simpsons" in which Homer gets rich by creating a tomato-tobacco hybrid that tastes nasty but is wildly addictive.
    "I knew it was scientifically possible," said Rob Baur, tomacco creator and an operations analyst for a wastewater treatment plant. "I thought, 'What the heck, let's try it and see what happens.' "
    He also remembered reading about a real-life 1959 experiment when he was in a graduate chemistry class at Western Washington University, in which researchers successfully crossed a tomato plant with tobacco.
    Baur grafted a tomato plant onto tobacco roots and, doh!, he had a real-life tomacco.
Poisonous, maybe
    Creating the freaky veggie wasn't as easy as Homer made it look. Earlier in the summer Baur grafted a tobacco plant onto a tomato root and the graft fell off. He tried a few more times and finally got a tomacco that not only lived but thrived.
    "The plant looks perfectly normal," Baur said. "It's blooming."
    The tomacco has even borne fruit: two red globes that look like regular tomatoes you would purée into marinara sauce.
    But don't eat them like they did on "The Simpsons." Baur believes the tomacco fruits are poisonous because they may contain a fatal dose of nicotine.
    "I left one of the tomaccos on the kitchen table and my wife yelled at me," he said. "I have no idea what to do with these things. It's like an atomic bomb. What do you do with them after you have set one off in the desert?"
    Joran Viers, horticulture agent for the Bernalillo County Cooperative Extension Service, confirms that while such a graft would be difficult to do, it is possible. Tomatoes and tobacco belong to the same plant family, which also includes eggplant and the poisonous nightshade.
    "I'm not sure why you would want to do that, though," he said.
    Viers also said he would be surprised if the tomacco fruit was poisonous. "With grafts, the fruit you get tends to be characteristic of the grafted-on part, not the root."
    Baur is about to find out if his tomacco is dangerous. On Friday he took the fruit to a forensics lab in nearby Portland, Ore., where its nicotine content was tested. The results will be back Monday.
    The same lab tested the tomacco plant's leaves last week and determined there was nicotine in the leaves, which means the tomacco plant is a true hybrid and not just a cartoon-inspired Frankenstein.
    "Whether smoking them would, uh, fulfill a need, I don't know. We didn't burn them," said Raymond Grimsbo, the forensic scientist who performed the test and director of Intermountain Forensic Laboratories.
World comes knocking
    At least one commentator has accused Baur of having w-a-a-a-a-a-ay too much time on his hands.
    But Baur said his tomacco experiment wasn't just about being deliberately wacky, or about being a science geek with nothing better to do.
    He said he liked the anti-tobacco message of the "Simpsons" tomacco episode, which ended with a tobacco company desperately trying to buy the tomacco formula from Homer.
    "It shows tobacco companies for what they really are and how stupid it is that even though this stuff tastes bad, you're addicted to it and will do almost anything to get it," he said.
    The local Fox affiliate, no doubt seeing rampant promotional possibilities for the jewel of the network's lineup, did a story on Baur and his tomacco. Since then, the global media have descended on Baur's town of Lake Oswego, Ore., population 30,576.
    He has been interviewed by CNN, the BBC, an Israeli magazine and a Canadian TV station. News of the tomacco has also been all over the Web, on blogs, science and technology sites and "Simpsons" fan sites.
    Baur is amazed by the response. "I got a patent once for a new way to ferment sludge," he said. "No one from Albuquerque called me about that."
    But this is "The Simpsons." And like you, Rob, we here in Albuquerque altered our world to make it more like the animated one we see on TV, in Matt Groening's Springfield.
    We, too, understand what it's like to find truth in a cartoon.
    Does Baur plan to bring any more "Simpsons" episodes to life? Maybe brew up a Flaming Moe?
    "I'll review my Simpsons DVDs and see if there's any more 'Simpsons' science I can do," he said.
    Leanne Potts writes this column weekly for the Journal. She can be reached at lpotts@abqjournal.com.