Slicing into a Melon Mystery: Watermelon’s Genetic Story

Slicing into a Melon Mystery: Watermelon’s Genetic Story

We’ve been having major heatwaves at DFC headquarters. So, even though summer doesn’t officially arrive for another week, we’ve already fully committed to the best of hot weather living. (In Canada, sometimes it’s enough that there’s no snow!) This includes wearing shorts, transitioning to cold brew coffee, and eating lots and lots of the perfect summer fruit: watermelon!

I love watermelon: on its own, in drinks, or as part of a salad. But the fruit is usually gone from my plate so quickly that I’d never really spared a thought for its provenance. Scientists, however, have – apparently, the genetic history of the large crunchy berry (technically!) has long been a mystery. But, as Isaac Schultz at Gizmodo reports, a team of international researchers have unravelled the surprising legacy of the world’s best melon.

“As lead author Susanne Renner, a botanist at the University of Munich, put it, ‘everybody thought that there were only four wild species and that the sweet watermelon that we eat today came from South Africa.’ But in 2015, one of her then-graduate students, Guillaume Chomicki, found through DNA sequencing of different specimens across Africa that the suspected watermelon ancestor in the south was just a distant relation. […]

‘We know that large, long watermelons were eaten raw 4,360 years before present in Egypt, thanks to ancient iconography,’ Chomicki said, ‘but the drawings are of whole fruit, and thus we cannot know if they were already red.’ Without material evidence, the researchers relied on a combination of genetic research and historical context. The samples of melon the team used were from Darfur, which was once Nubia. Renner said it’s possible that the crop was domesticated in Nubia and then made its way up the Nile through trade.”

My respect for watermelon has only deepened with this digging up of its proverbial roots. With our society’s general disconnect from our agriculture’s fruits, it feels like a gift to know precisely where – and when – a given melon is from. Knowing I’m eating a slice of history next time I bite into my favourite summer snack will, I think, make the experience all the sweeter!

Flat-Packed Pasta: The Shape of the Future?

At the risk of carbo-loading this newsletter, here is more pasta shape news that I found too delicious to pass up! A team working in Carnegie Mellon University’s Morphing Matter Lab has devised a way to “flat pack” pasta — stamping noodles with strategic ridges that allow them to spring up into fancy shapes when boiled. In addition to the cool-factor, these innovative shapes have the potential to minimize packaging and production waste, as well as maximize storage and shipping capabilities.

“The grooves stamped into the flat pasta sheets increase the time it takes water to cook that area of the pasta. By carefully planning where and how to place the grooves, the researchers can control what shape of pasta forms when it is cooked.

‘The groove side expands less than the smooth side, leading the pasta to morph into shape,’ said Teng Zhang, an assistant professor at Syracuse University who led the modeling analysis in this project.

Grooves can be used to control the morphed shape of any swellable material. The team has demonstrated that it can morph silicon sheets using the same groove technique. […]

Traditional pasta already morphs when cooked, expanding and softening when boiled. The team harnessed these natural properties to create its flat-packed product.”

The CMU team co-authored a paper with researchers from Syracuse University and Zhejiang University, from departments as diverse as mechanical engineering and computational fabrication and design. It was published it in Science Advances last month. The team envisions equally wide-ranging applications of this technology — beyond the kitchen, and into soft robotics and medical devices. This is not to say culinary goals are any less noble: the researchers theorize this could even reduce the energy required to cook the pasta, and therefore the user’s carbon footprint. (And we all know we could use help with those.) I’ll top my serving of saving-the-world with a nice marinara and a meatball or two, thank you!

The Frightening Flavour of the Beer of the Future

If you’ve ever been to Colorado, chances are you enjoyed gorgeous vistas of the Rockies, as well as the ubiquitous work of local suds masters New Belgium Brewing – they of the famously easy-drinking “Fat Tire” amber ale.

Well, the team at New Belgium have released a new brew that forecasts a terrible future, where neither beautiful nature views nor delicious beer will be on the menu. Their “Torched Earth” ale, crafted in honour of Earth Day 2021, was designed to show what beer will likely taste like when brewers are forced to use what ingredients are left after climate change is done with us. And unlike beer itself, this prophecy is sobering.

“Torched Earth Ale pours a cloudy amber and has a troubling aroma right out of the bottle, not unlike a friend’s first batch of homebrew. The brewers used smoky malt, and sure enough, there are overwhelming notes of forest fire and skunk. One whiff conjures up the mental image of a crying Smokey Bear. The smoky flavor is actually more balanced than expected, though it is overpowering and leaves an unpleasantly dry finish. Shelf-stable hop extract was used instead of fresh hops, and the difference is noticeable: there is a thinness and a staleness to the aftertaste that makes your insides feel polluted. Dandelions were also added because, as anyone with a yard knows, dandelions are an indestructible force of evil and could never be eradicated, even on the surface of the sun. They do not add much in flavor, though, and the end result is a beer that tastes like you left your Fat Tire out at a party and your friends used it as an ashtray.”

This apocalyptic beverage is actually available to buy, though the main reason it was made is to “inspire the 70% of Fortune 500 companies who do not have a real climate plan to make one now – before it’s too late”. All sales proceeds will also go to Protect Our Winters an environmental advocacy organization. All good reasons to invest in the 8-can-minimum purchase – I’d be hard-pressed to think of someone who’d buy all that just to drink it. And that, I believe, is the point! Hopefully, we can change our course before Torched Earth is all we have.