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Slicing into a Melon Mystery: Watermelon’s Genetic Story

Slicing into a Melon Mystery: Watermelon’s Genetic Story

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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!