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Twenty Years Later, the Identity of Johnny Milkweedseed Finally Revealed

On January 1, 2016, the Southern Fried Science central server began uploading blog posts apparently circa 2041. Due to a related corruption of the contemporary database, we are, at this time, unable to remove these Field Notes from the Future or prevent the uploading of additional posts. Please enjoy this glimpse into the ocean future while we attempt to rectify the situation.


A team of journalists from WIRED have finally cracked the case on a twenty year mystery that, by now, has become almost the creation myth of the modern, radical techno-environmentalist movement. The identity of Johnny Milkweedseed, the name given to the anonymous person or persons responsible for the great milkweed explosion of 2021, was revealed to be Leslie Johnson of DuBuque, Iowa, now deceased.

The journalists re-opened the search for the mysterious actor after last year’s discovery of the original lab that was used to create the hybrid milkweed disseminated by Johnson in the summer of 2020. After tests confirmed the archive of plasmids indeed contained the roundup resistant gene found in milkweed 247a, a number of journalists followed them back to their source – an overgrown farm in Dubuque. The lead turned out to be Johnson’s nephew, Mark Lee, who had kept the garage biolab located in the back barn of the property in nearly perfect condition since his aunt’s passing in 2036. By then, she had moved onto more modern equipment that she was using to create apple and strawberry varieties for her farm, but the lab still housed a number of the classic devices Johnson used for that initial prototyping of milkweed 247a: petri dishes to grow bacteria, micropipettes for implantation, a huge archive of plasmids, as well as the DNA synthesizer that she used, which, as far as Lee knew, was “probably a second-hand machine she found on eBay.”  

“I felt like now was the right time to talk about it, and I’m glad to finally be able to show this off,” Lee explained. “I’d worked hard to keep the lab in the same shape she left it. She always kept the tools around even though many of them had stopped working, because she thought it might hold a sort of historical significance.”

According to Lee, even though she knew her work was important, she didn’t want the attention or pressure of being a public figure. Her initial reasoning for anonymity was legal, though, as she had grossly violated her employment contract. She had been working as a biologist for Monsanto in St. Louis, when she initially started down the path of techno-environmentalism. Lee recounted stories his aunt had told him about visiting the cornfields in Iowa and breaking down.

“The work took a toll on her.” Lee said, “It’s hard to remember now, but this region was apocalyptic, just one species as far as the eye could see. At some point, she realized that this wasn’t about feeding the planet anymore, and she wanted to change how humans were interacting with their environment.”

Johnson left her job at Monsanto in 2017 with a plan. She smuggled out all the relevant information on the next few years crop of Roundup Ready Corn, and moved to San Francisco. She was there for six months. While there, she immersed herself in the emerging DIY Bio scene – learning all the tricks and tips she could from the community, but more importantly, she began stockpiling the tools she needed for the work of creating her own milkweed variety. With a collection of DIY tools and old, second hand equipment, she moved her operation to the farmhouse in Iowa, where the cost of living was almost free and she would be much closer to the action.

She decided on milkweed for a specific reason. At the time, the Monarch butterfly was one of the biggest headlines in conservation world. The populations had been decimated in 2016 and again in 2017. At this rate they were going, they would be extinct by the end of the decade. The butterflies had become the posterchild for the mass extinction event. Finally a species that was unthreatening and charismatic enough to make it into the mainstream cultural discussion. Everyone knew the problem. It was a lack of their food source: milkweed. But Johnson was one of the few who knew how to solve it, even though it meant bending the rules of law.

Monsanto didn’t know what was coming. No one did. And not even Johnson could have predicted the far-reaching impact her actions would have. The summer of 2020 was the first time the 247a variant was noticed in the wild. Farmers in Southeastern Minnesota were the first to report large swaths of their fields becoming full of the Roundup-resistant milkweed. In 2021, it had spread to six more states, and hundreds of other farms. By 2022, nearly 30% of farms in the midwest had reported some degree of milkweed growth in their crop.

The reason for the explosive growth wasn’t necessarily biological. It was a massive shift in the culture of the environmental movement. Greenpeace was the center of this change. After seeing the fear that one person, Johnny Milkweedseed, had created for Monsanto, and seeing the positive ecosystem effects of the the new milkweed variant, a few Greenpeace footsoldiers  started to thaw on their perspective on genetically modified organisms. Instead of continuing their support of GMO bans, some of them decided the potential of this technology for the sake of conservation was too interesting to ignore. The decision caused tremendous internal strife, but it didn’t matter. Once it was made, it took on a life of it’s own. It drew more attention – both anger and enthusiasm – than any of their other initiatives. Monsanto immediately began filing lawsuits to put out the fires, but it didn’t matter. Even if Greenpeace decided never to change it’s official position, it was too late. A new type of active environmentalism was born.

The easiest way for others to join was by finding and spreading Milkweed 247a – a continent-wide swarm of human pollinators. The following years saw the introduction of thousands of new, modified species with specific ecological niches. The more conservation success stories, the more the strategy was embraced by other environmentalists. Small farmers eventually came around to using the technology to create their own modified and robust crops. But that summer of Johnny Milkweedseed still stands out as the catalyst. It became one of the biggest biological events of the decade – the moment conservation biology shifted from protecting things to actively modifying and making things. Humans had been playing an overly active role in natural selection for the past 300 years. That didn’t change. But now they took a sense of responsibility in that process

According to her nephew, Johnson was conflicted about the movement she had incited. She worked hard to keep her anonymity, and for years stayed quietly committed to the monarchs. In her lab in her backyard barn, continuing to protect the species she loved.


On January 1, 2016, the Southern Fried Science central server began uploading blog posts apparently circa 2041. Due to a related corruption of the contemporary database, we are, at this time, unable to remove these Field Notes from the Future or prevent the uploading of additional posts. Please enjoy this glimpse into the ocean future while we attempt to rectify the situation.