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What Fruits and Vegetables Looked Like Before We Domesticated Them (sciencealert.com)
87 points by shawndumas 68 days ago | hide | past | web | favorite | 27 comments



There's also an interesting comparison to Australian "bush tucker" (native foods), which have been eaten by Aboriginals for thousands of years but not systematically cultivated and bred:

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bush_tucker

Surprise surprise, more or less all bush fruit are small, have large seeds/stones, and taste inoffensive but rarely delicious. I wonder what a bush plum or lilly-pilly would look & taste like after 4,000 years of systematic breeding?

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Carissa_spinarum (bonus: poisonous when unripe)

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Syzygium_smithii


Very interesting article that shows how far we've come. But I was completely turned off by the undertone of "GMO is OK, we've been doing it forever". Actual gene editing has so much more potential, not just for beneficial changes but for inadvertent catastrophes. What happens when GMO creates a mistake on the order of Thalidomide?


Old school selective breeding is full of consequential mistakes too. See "Africanized killer bees".

If anything, gene editing is much more predictable than randomly mashing together the genes of select specimens.


You might be overestimating our gene-editing abilities - our current knowledge is, in rough terms, a bunch of guesses where we only discover other roles a gene has years later. It’s anything but predictable.


We’re actually getting pretty good at gene editing at this point. Predicting what the consequence of those edits is another story. (Although I think that’s what you were getting at).

Plant genes are odd.

From and old article by Michael Polan:

“When I got home from St. Louis, I phoned Richard Lewontin, the Harvard geneticist, to ask him what he thought of the software metaphor. ''From an intellectual-property standpoint, it's exactly right,'' he said. ''But it's a bad one in terms of biology. It implies you feed a program into a machine and get predictable results. But the genome is very noisy. If my computer made as many mistakes as an organism does'' -- in interpreting its DNA, he meant -- ''I'd throw it out.''

I asked him for a better metaphor. ''An ecosystem,'' he offered. ''You can always intervene and change something in it, but there's no way of knowing what all the downstream effects will be or how it might affect the environment. We have such a miserably poor understanding of how the organism develops from its DNA that I would be surprised if we don't get one rude shock after another.''”

https://www.nytimes.com/1998/10/25/magazine/playing-god-in-t...


''An ecosystem,''

Thats a brilliant metaphor.


I'm trying to point out that our previous tool for gene editing - mashing two sets of DNA together randomly - is even less predictable. We just consider it normal because it's been going on for much longer.


Or more mundanely, what if we’re living in the 90s (a lot seems to have changed in such a short amount of time), and we remove the fat from everything to make it healthier, or add inflammatory emulsifiers to improve shelf stability and flavor? Or more sinisterly, how long until someone creates a banana with nicotine?

Food science and chemistry aren’t always used in ways that are good for society, intentionally or not.

There really seems to be a pressure for people who believe in science to say “GMO = good,” but it is a technology like any other (eg, nuclear, antibiotics, AI) that deserves scrutiny in how it is applied.


The original domesticated carrots were purple, and these remain the default carrot in parts of the world (eg. much of northern India).

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Carrot#History


In northern Eurasia, the most common color for carrots used to be yellow (like some parsnip varieties today), and the local-language name for them still sometimes contains the word "yellow" even though today people buy the same orange carrots as elsewhere.


The watermelon example is incorrect. That started as a posting on social media and shortly after there were corrections by botanists and agricultural experts. The watermelon in the painting is an example of a pathology that still occurs in modern watermelon.


I find these wild fruits and vegetables fascinating. Does anyone know where you could find/buy/grow these to taste them, out of curiosity?


Yes, rareseeds.com is a great place for heirloom seeds and funky seeds/plants you can’t find elsewhere. Most of their stuff has been “tamed” but they will mention if it’s not ready for farming type cultivation.

They have an ancient watermelon that’s been breed to taste good. I’m going to start growing Paw Paws this year or next.


Go hiking with a field guide for edible plants or someone knowledgeable.


teosinte, the ancestor of maize, still grows in Mexico and is occasionally harvested by indigenous peoples. There was some very nice work done by Beadle ("one gene, one enzyme") and Mcclintock ("jumping genes") to uncover the historical relationship and it's quite impressive to see what 10K years of selective breeding can do.


It’s good that the article includes images of the modern counterparts, you know, for Gen Z. (joke)


Enjoy those modern bananas while you can, they'll be extinct soon enough.


That story has been running for at least ten years, yet I can still buy Cavendish bananas at almost any grocery.


As I said, enjoy them while you can. The parts of the world where they can be grown has been steadily shrinking. I think just last week I saw a story where the deadly fungus had been found in South America.


And perhaps in another ten years you will start missing Cavendish bananas.


Long term there should be no difference between traditional breeding and GMO outcomes. (traditional just operates at the maximum pace and incremental change nature allows)

GMO is a issue only where turning a short term profit overrides giving the mutation time for natural attrition to weed out any potential issues.

The thing is, both can lead to bad outcomes: susceptibility to disease and inability to breed from seed are common issues as a result of selective breeding.


Disagree. GMO via gene implantation is a fundamentally different method of modification, and its long term effects either aren't well understood or aren't published

Selective breeding may have unintended consequences but at least the process is based on nature, aka plant sex.

Agreed that both can lead to bad outcomes, but I don't think it's unreasonable to believe that most with some kind of a biology background wouldn't find GMO far more ominous.


>traditional just operates at the maximum pace and incremental change nature allows

..uh and using genes from the same species! As opposed to using any genes from any species at all. I'm not sure how people can present GM as if it's the same thing, just a bit faster. Or how you can talk as if lack of fertility is the main problem people have, or the only problem people could possibly have, with GMO.


The article was about how we have changed food plants mostly via selective breeding (and grafting), so my point on fertility was in regard to the crop. Cavendish bananas are a good example of selective breeding gone wrong, and eliminating seeds in citrus fruits is also problematic.

GMO from a human health point of view is entirely different issue, and I agree that it is poorly understood as far as long term effects. They also need to do better to quarantine the GMO from the possibility of cross-breeding before long term studies are completed.

At the same time climate change is an issue which is where GMO could have value such as making some crops more resistant to drought or frost as our weather patterns become more variable and bioregions shift. While this may require venturing outside of a genus which is the limit of where you can go with breeding/grafting you're not going to be venturing too far. Personally I do disagree with GMO programs such as herbicide resistance as that's something else again.

Maybe GMO should be something left to Government approval and funding where short-term profit making doesn't play into how soon a new plant variety is released?

And for better transparency we treat each GMO not as a variety but as a new breed with a new name?


Thank for this very generous response, on an issue about which I know little.


I was going to post a couple of old articles as background to my various dot points, and found this from last week which covers most of the debate and quite a bit more. Also has up-to-date information on where Government regulation is at. Quite a good article.

https://www.nationalgeographic.com/environment/global-warmin...

Some background on biotech in general.

http://www.isaaa.org/resources/publications/agricultural_bio...


I a generally pro GMO, but the risks are wider than most assume. A specific GMO could easily be toxic. Many chemicals bioaccumulate and get worse with increasing concentrations and if it’s a novel compound we are not going to test for it. Prions are another nasty possibility.

I am not saying several million dead anything more than a theoretical possibility, but risks are not just about what’s bad for farmers.




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