How Everything Works
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Question 927

Why does microwave radiation affect plant seeds differently? If you microwave sunflower seeds 30 seconds, they germinate faster than if you did not microwave them at all, and yet if you microwave them for 60 seconds, the seeds do not germinate at all. If you do this same experiment with carrot seeds, the non-radiated seeds, the 30 second and 60 second seeds all germinate within 14 days. Why? Is it because the sunflower seeds are larger and absorb more radiation than the smaller carrot seeds? — ST, Mobile, AL
When you expose the seeds to microwave radiation, you are selectively heating portions of the insides of the seeds. Fats and oils don't absorb microwaves well but water does, so the parts of the seeds that become hottest are those that contain the most water molecules. Evidently, heating the water-containing portion of a sunflower seeds slightly cause that seed to germinate faster, but heating that same portion too much sterilizes the seed. That observation indicates that a moderate temperature rise causes the chemical reactions of germination to occur more rapidly while a more severe temperature rise denatures some of the critical biological molecules and kills the seed. The absence of any effect in carrot seeds may indicate that they don't have enough water in them to absorb the microwaves. It may also indicate that they can tolerate higher temperatures without undergoing the chemical reactions of germination and without experiencing damage to their critical molecules.

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