Sunday, December 20, 2009

The Fruit Hunters [Review]

I found myself in an Annapolis pub, discussing dental anthropology over oysters on a cool, wet Maryland evening. Raw oysters are not my favorite bivalve, but I enjoyed hearing Jim describe his Madagascarian classroom, where he was studying the diet of lemurs for his Ph.D.
I asked him what type of foods human teeth are adapted for. "Well..," he hesitated, explaining the controversy over whether teeth are adapted to chew an animal's main food, or its food of last resort.

"Okay, but what are human teeth adapted for?"

It was always a nice reward after a 110 degree bike commute to stop for figs in the shade of an abandoned field. My grad school roommates and I would often meet in the kitchen after work to discuss the tree's progress and plot to strip armloads of the soft, aromatic fruits before the birds caught on. I remember Mel spilling grocery bags full of homegrown pomegranates across our seminar lunch table and myself crushing walnuts against tree trunks on the department farm. Pausing in dusty redwood clearings to sample blackberries among the hoppers, wasps and rattlesnakes. Or pulling down rain-sopping mulberries on a dark summer night, waiting to help Amelia move.

There's something peaceful and familiar about foraging for fruit. I always felt that my research time spent pawing through low evergreen canopies on Sonoma ridges, searching for bright orange patches was apt for an animal adapted to find colorful fruit in a sea of leaves.

These memories came back to me as I sank into Adam Leith Gollner's The Fruit Hunters. I was immediately hooked by his playful use of language and allusions, and by his somewhat stream of consciousness rhythm (which struck me as oddly reminiscent of my own attempted style). He quickly convinced me that the world is full of many thousands more species and varieties of fruit than I could ever imagine, or that a dedicated fruit hunter could ever track down. He wound stories of explorers and ancient mythology, illuminating a world where mundane, everyday fruit were hiding centuries of stories.

I enjoyed as he rattled off random facts about random fruit:
Grenades were inspired by exploding dehiscent pomegranates. (Grenade is French for pomegranate). Explosive dehiscence also occurs in wisteria and sesame fruits (hence, "Open sesame!")
Some fruits mimic centipedes, worms, spiders and horned beetles so bird and insect predators will disperse them.
Giant fruits that have lost their ancient animal disperser (e.g. avocados, prickly pears, osage oranges and papayas) are known as "anachronisms."
Fig wasps (which symbiotically pollinate fig flowers and raise their young in the fruit) are dissolved by the chemical ficin after they die within the fruit.
The miracle fruit contains sugar-mimicking chemicals that stick to the tongue, making all sour foods taste sweet, and was outlawed by the FDA (i.e. sugar industry) in the 1960s.
Maraschino cherries are just the worst quality cherries, bleached, dyed and flavored artificially, but were adapted from a sour cherry liqueur, popularly used in Eastern Europe to preserve sour Marasca cherries.

Unfortunately, he began to lose me after the second chapter. The rest of the book increasingly follows the adventures of wealthy eccentrics whose tales don't live up to the hype of their mystical fanaticism for fruits.

He lost me altogether as he began to spout random "facts" on agricultural science that were flat wrong:

It is NOT a secret which foods have been genetically engineered.
No commercial tomato ever had flounder antifreeze genes in it.*
He refers to black sigatoka disease as being caused by a virus.
GMOs ARE tested for safety - by the USDA, FDA and EPA.
He also reported numerous absurd health claims about different fruits (possibly tongue in cheek)

He also makes sweeping generalizations about the dangers of pesticides. Every single molecule that exists in the world is toxic at some concentration (yes, even water). It's beyond irresponsible to conflate the ability of pesticides to injure experimental animals with the danger that trace residues pose.

His funniest screw up was his shock at seeing the fine print on a California IHOP that warns of the presence of "chemicals known to cause cancer or birth defects or other reproductive harm." He blamed it on industrial, processed food, but a better journalist would have learned that California passed some law requiring these signs everywhere (e.g. every apartment I'd lived in).

All in all, it's worth reading if you have nothing better to do. I was fascinated by the beginning, but any given fact (including the ones I listed) are dubious.

* Here's the history behind that dumb tomato with flounder genes rumor:
For years now, it's been a routine academic approach in plant biology to express foreign genes in experimental plants to see what happens. In this study, they expressed animal antifreeze proteins in a plant. They make the (far-fetched) suggestion that expressing native plant antifreeze proteins in crops could protect them from freezing damage. These plants are not grown commercially and were probably destroyed as soon as the experiment ended.
R, Baden C, Penzes E, Lund P, Dunsmuir P. 1991. Expression
of antifreeze proteins in transgenic plants. Plant Molecular Biology
17: 1013±1021.

Thursday, December 17, 2009

The Great Ag (healthcare) Experiment

The New Yorker has a pretty incredible article on the history of American agriculture. It describes how the U.S. was transformed from a land of unskilled subsistence farmers to an agricultural (and political) superpower - largely thanks to a network of government scientists and extension agents.

In 1900, poor agricultural practices exhausted and destroyed most farm plots in fewer than 5 years and the typical family spent more than 40% of their income on food. Agriculture was built on an unproductive combination of tradition, superstition and hard labor. Most farmers were incredibly recalcitrant to new ideas, which were often derided as "book farming." As the food cost crises intensified, the U.S. government stepped in - not with an Agricultural Central Planning Agency, but with a distributed network of experimental and demonstration farms in small towns across the continent. USDA scientists and extension agents at these stations worked personally with local farmers to develop and communicate best practices for their crops in their region.
"What seemed like a hodgepodge eventually cohered into a whole. The government never took over agriculture, but the government didn’t leave it alone, either. It shaped a feedback loop of experiment and learning and encouragement for farmers across the country. The results were beyond what anyone could have imagined. Productivity went way up, outpacing that of other Western countries. Prices fell by half. By 1930, food absorbed just twenty-four per cent of family spending and twenty per cent of the workforce. Today, food accounts for just eight per cent of household income and two per cent of the labor force. It is produced on no more land than was devoted to it a century ago, and with far greater variety and abundance than ever before in history."
According to this article, the current Senate health care bill is following in these footsteps to tackle our current crisis of out of control costs. Despite all the hype about whether or not this bill will have a public option or cover abortion, the core of this bill is apparently dedicated to giving organizations and communities across the country the freedom to experiment with how they will administer and pay for health care. It would harnesses both the creativity and ingenuity of individuals to develop new systems and the government's ability to organize and communicate the results.

This American Life came to the same conclusion after a fascinating tale of the history of U.S. health insurance. I sure hope it works!

* Although both pictures look "old," the first (1921) shows the adoption of very efficient (though capital-intensive) mechanization over human and animal labor (1886).

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

NO FRACK (ing)

Cryptic black signs with an X through the word "Frak" have appeared all over town. This failure of graphic design is an abomination.

"Ok, you have my attention... so howabout adding a website or something so I can actually find out what you're trying to advertise!?!?"

Luckily, one of our local papers had a story describing the proposed extraction (fracking) of natural gas from the Marcellus Shale (which I had heard about). NPR's On Point got me up to speed.

The U.S. has massive untapped reservoirs of natural gas, which burns much cleaner than coal (which I already knew thanks to SimCity). "Hydrofracking" fractures natural gas containing formations with high pressure water, making the formation more permeable and allowing the more rapid collection of natural gas (or other fuels). According to the guests, this process has been used extensively in many parts of the country (e.g. Texas) with little to no environmental impacts. Apparently, one of the major suburbs of Houston is completely undercut by hydrofracking equipment and pumps are located within 100 feet of houses!

Contrarily, operations in other locations (especially Pennsylvania), have been blamed for groundwater contamination with all sorts of toxic industrial chemicals, in addition to more fanciful claims, such as generating earthquakes. One guest seemed to say that, while operations in places like Texas have been shown to be pretty much 100% safe, it is not unlikely that the unique geological characteristics of the Marcellus Shale may cause additional hazards.

So I guess I would be against it? (at least until the safety has been investigated further?)

I do think it's important to balance these pros and cons against greater concerns though. One caller reminded us that potential environmental contamination may be the alternative to our ongoing military involvement in the Middle East. I don't know what the right decision is, but I'd hate to see the wrong decision be made just for NIMBY.

Monday, December 14, 2009

Native Gardening isn't always Sustainable

A nice post by The Garden Professors - reminding us that native plants aren't always the best choice for gardeners looking to maximize biodiversity and minimize resource usage.

h/t: Greensparrow Gardens

Friday, December 11, 2009

"We Are What Our Ancestors Ate"

Evolutionary biologists discussed the ideal human diet at a recent meeting.

Our ancestors enjoyed a range of diets - from generally omnivorous australopithecines, through Homo species that increasingly specialized in large game, to the incredible variety of diets that creative H. sapiens cultures have come up.

These regional diets have left imprints on their descendants. This article discusses how people of warm lowlands (e.g. the Pima of the American Southwest) may have developed slow metabolisms to withstand famine and heat while people from cold climates (e.g. the Saami of Norway or Quechua of Peru) may have developed fast metabolisms to convert fat to energy efficiently. All peoples suffer when exposed to the modern Western diet, but the extent to which they develop specific diseases (e.g. obesity, diabetes, high cholesterol or heart disease) depends on their biological history.

There's no shortage of debate over exactly what characterized the Paleolithic diet for humans in different times and places, but I guess there's consensus in the paraphrase:
"More meat, Fewer carbs, No milk."
I especially like how this article brings the academic discussion back down to Earth:
"Others noted that even if one paleodiet proves particularly healthy, it would be hard for people in different cultures to comply with it. "Food is identity," says Ungar. "You can't tell an Eastern European Jew to eat pork" or an Italian to skip pasta. The bottom line, says Leonard, is that although some diets are better than others, "there isn't a perfect diet that is the same for everyone. The nature of our success is to find and make a meal in virtually any environment. But our different responses are structured by the basic biology we bring to the table.""
h/t: John Hawks Weblog

Wednesday, December 9, 2009

Meat Consumption and Greenhouse Gasses

A study from UC Davis asserts that animal ag is not an important source of greenhouse gasses and decreasing meat consumption, therefore, is not an effective way to fight climate change.
"Mitloehner said leading authorities agree that, in the U.S., raising cattle and pigs for food accounts for about 3 percent of all greenhouse gas emissions, while transportation creates an estimated 26 percent."
h/t: Advocates for Agriculture

Virus Melts Caterpillar!

I recently saw a presentation on the molecular biology of baculoviruses and was blown away by the missed opportunity to discuss their ecology.
If the speaker had introduced this fascinating group of viruses properly, the audience would have been much more interested in what he had to say.

The lifecycle of a typical baculovirus begins when a caterpillar ingests virion particles while feeding on a leaf. The virus exists in two different forms - a tough protective structure that can survive the elements and an infective structure that travels quickly through the insect's body.

The former version of the virus can withstand harsh environmental conditions -heat, solar radiation and rain - but it breaks down in the incredibly alkaline environment of an insect's midgut (pH as high as 10 or 12!). This alkalinity (on par with ammonia!) dissolves the virion's protective matrix and allows the virus' nucleic acids to climb into the insect's gut cells. The virus then transforms to its latter form and spreads throughout the body by budding off each infected cell in little bubbles of cell membrane.

In Manduca sexta (pic.), this virus also seems to induce the caterpillar to wander up high into branches before it dies. This was noticed in Germany in the 1900s, where it was called "wipfelkrankeit," or, tree-top disease. At this point the virus enters its lytic phase, bursting cells and inducing the caterpillar's own cells to produce chitnases that digest the exoskeleton. The sick caterpillar literally melts, leaving only a black, virus-filled stain on the leaf. The slurrified caterpillar drips and falls down through the branches, contaminating every leaf it touches. Our very hungry caterpillar got infected by eating the liquefied corpse of another.

Because these virion particles are water soluble, they can likely be found on every land mass and in every body of water on Earth - and are certainly present on most of the fruits and veggies you eat! Luckily, they're harmless to us. In fact, they're so incredibly species-specific that they haven't been very useful as biopesticides since growers usually need to control more than one bug at a time. There are just a few commercial preparations, including one that the USFS uses to control gypsy moths. Baculovirus biopesticides (like many forms of biocontrol) are kinda tricky to use, and therefore expensive, but a few labs are working on discovering/engineering more effective viruses strains.

Tuesday, December 8, 2009

Urban Hunting

Yet another interesting foodie article from the NY Times: The Urban Deerslayer. They describe the recent appearance of urban hunting clubs that cater to novices who may never have so much as held a gun or carved a turkey.

I'm all for anything that gets people more involved in nature. People who interact intensively with nature understand it much better and make more meaningful efforts to conserve it. Some people like to watch birds, some like to climb mountains and some like to hunt - these are all valuable nature educations, plus the hunters (like gardeners!) learn something about where their food comes from.

Besides, the Midatlantic-Northeast deer herd is absolutely out of control. It's very satisfying how quickly our abandoned ag land has exploded with secondary forests in the past few generations but, lacking predators, the deer population has also exploded. I'd love to spend time in local woodlands that haven't had every sign of greenery within 6 feet of the ground scoured clean.

h/t: The World's Fair

Sunday, December 6, 2009

Fake Flowers

I was just at the store and saw poinsettias covered in glitter.


Saturday, December 5, 2009

Vernalization FAIL

They keep promising snow but it hasn't happened yet...
It hasn't really been warm the past week, but it's definitely less cold than I'd expect. Less cold than the daylilies expected too, apparently. A few plants species have been pushing out leaves recently, but the daylilies have 1-2 foot flower stalks topped with little green buds. I joked to my officemate that if they make it another week we may have fresh cut flowers in our office. Or I could just deep fry them.

Vernalization is the process by which plants time dormancy during a cold winter. They simply go dormant when it gets cold and then start growing during the first warm period following a certain period of cold temperatures. This usually works, but our crazy, indecisive Mid-Atlantic winters don't make it easy. Back in Delaware, we'd commonly get snow and 70 degree temperatures within two weeks.

The ornamental flower industry commonly uses controlled cold periods to trick temperate flowers (like bulbs) into blooming on time for our holidays. I currently have a bunch of pawpaw seeds in my fridge for the same reason.

Thursday, December 3, 2009


One of the universal benefits of working in an ag lab is the leftovers. Especially in California. We used to get everything from pesticide trial "control" strawberries to extra non-inoculated avocados, to thank you gifts from growers of almonds (not to mention wine!).

One of the coolest treats was an accident.

My grad school PI ran disease screens for a peach breeder who, I think, was trying to introgress some pathogen resistance gene from almond to peach. Peaches and almonds (along with plums, cherries and apricots) are in the genus Prunus. It seems odd at first until you see what an almond fruit actually looks like (pic.) and realize that that the almond "nut" is homologous to the seed inside a peach pit. Almond fruits are even fuzzy! My Jordanian friend once told me that the fruits themselves (when immature and green) are a popular snack in the Middle East.

During the summer we received weekly deliveries of hybrid peach x almond fruits to inoculate - the extras we ate. One week stands out in my memory. This batch looked like nectarines but had deep red-purple flesh with the taste and rubbery texture of a plum. And in the center of each fruit there was an almond where the pit should have been! It was like eating a fruit that came with a candy dessert at the end.

We carefully nibbled at pieces of the "almond," as the wild relative of this crop, the bitter almond, releases cyanide when chewed. It tasted like a normal almond but we threw it out just in case. My almond lab friend was pretty alarmed we even tried it. Apparently this kind of haywire genetic mixing happens a lot in Prunus species and it's not unusual for a fruit to look like a mix of different fruits that we normally think of as distinct.

Most of us think we've got nature pretty well figured out, but it always surprises me just how amorphous and unpredictable biology really is.

Wednesday, December 2, 2009

Experimental Apple Pie v.2

I'm new to baking but I've gotten a lot of practice this fall - and still haven't made a dent in the more than a bushel of apples, and 10-plus pounds of Long Island cheese pumpkin I bought a month ago ($15 at a farm stand clearance!).

A quick Google search and advice from a friend started me on a great apple pie recipe - though I'm not sure how it could taste bad with the amount of butter and sugar that's called for... At any rate, I tried leaving the skins on this time (since my apple sauce was much better with them). I'm happy with the result! Today's pie seems to taste more aromatic apple-y than previous ones and is largely dark red in the center, like pecan pie. Chewing on big pieces of skin wasn't a big deal, but I bet I wouldn't notice them at all if I cut each apple slice in two before baking.

I made bread from the cheese pumpkin before Thanksgiving and was happy with it (though I'm not sure it tasted any different than the canned stuff. This variety is supposedly the quintessential pie pumpkin and I was surprised that a fruit with such a dull, pink exterior could be so fluorescent orange on the inside. According to Wiki, it's actually a different species than "normal" pumpkins, Curcurbita pepo and maxima. Pumpkins, gourds, squash and zucchini are all just different varieties of a handful of species (the same way broccoli, cabbage and Brussels sprouts are all just different varieties of the same species). Cheese pumpkins, specifically, belong to the species C. moschata (along with butternut squash). At any rate, I'll be turning some of this frozen pumpkin into pie soon.

One way or another, I've got a few more prototypes to run through before I bring pies (and piles of apple butter!) to Christmas. Anyone have an easy gluten-free pie crust recipe?


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