The latest thinking on domestication illustrated

by Luigi Guarino on April 24, 2014

I’m still ploughing through the PNAS special feature on domestication,1 but I just thought I’d share what are in many ways the money figures. They come from the overview article, and they show the about 20 or so accepted and probable centres of domestication:

Screen Shot 2014-04-24 at 12.13.23 PM

And a timeline for selected domesticates:

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  1. Thanks to Dorian Fuller, who was heavily involved, for reminding us on his Facebook page that “[m]ost of these papers, and the section, arise from a meeting held a few years ago in Durham as part of the National Evolutionary Synthesis Center sponsored by NSF. []

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How is yoghurt like a hybrid seed?

by Jeremy Cherfas on April 24, 2014

An audio recording of a 90-minute panel discussion is not something to tangle lightly with, not even when the topic is one of my favourites: fermentation. I finally got around to it, though, and I’m very glad I did.

The recording dates from exactly a year ago today, which I swear I didn’t know before writing this, and a discussion at the American Museum of Natural History as part of their series Adventures in the Global Kitchen. The Art of Fermentation featured Sandor Katz, who needs no introduction to fermentation heads, and Dan Felder, head of research and development at the Momofuku Culinary Lab.1

I found it really fascinating even though – possibly because – I know a bit about fermentation. And one bit in particular joined fermentation to another interest: seeds and intellectual property rights. I know!

Starting at about 1 hr and 8 mins, Sandor Katz was explaining why, if you decide to do home-made yoghurt with most store-bought yoghurt as a starter, it is ok for the first generation or two but by three and four is pretty runny and not very good. He said that bulk industrial yoghurt depends on pure cultures of just two species of bacterium, Lactobacillus bulgaricus and Streptococcus thermophilus. Local, heirloom yoghurts, if you will, contain those two as part of a larger ecosystem, and the ecosystem as a whole is able to defend itself from microbial interlopers, whereas the pure cultures are not. And that’s why an heirloom yoghurt can be renewed generation after generation without changing much in its properties.

Katz pointed out that greater control for the manufacturer means some benefits but less self-sufficiency for the consumer. You can buy their yoghurt, but you can’t use it to make your own. And he specifically likened that to the development of F1 hybrid seeds, which likewise offer benefits at the expense of self-sufficiency. Because you can’t save your own seeds from F1 hybrids.

Except, of course, that you can. You don’t get what you started off with, but that’s the point. With time and space and a little bit of knowledge you can dehybridise F1s, exploiting all the goodies that the breeders put in there and, who knows, coming up with something as good or better and being able to maintain that generation to generation. I have no idea whether you can do that with industrial yoghurt, exposing it to a bit more wild culture and selecting among mini-batches.

And that led to a not very satisfactory discussion of intellectual property rights as they relate to ferments and the kind of work Dan Felder is doing with Momofuku. “I can’t talk about that,” he said, disarmingly. But then he did, worrying that plagiarism was much more common than credit and attribution among chefs. And that’s why they keep some things secret.

Katz then pointed out that we owe all the ferments and most of the techniques in use today to generations of experimenters before us. Sound familiar?

Ferments and techniques, but not substrates, countered Felder, who makes a miso based on Sicilian pistachios, and much else besides. He was proud to accept that he was building on generations of experimentation and tradition. Just not writing it up on Twitter.

  1. I am unable to say anything about Momofuku that hasn’t already been said, other than that it is somewhere I want to go and eat, preferably within the next 12 months. []


I decide soiling my hands

by Luigi Guarino on April 23, 2014

“The book showed how ninjas trained by jumping over cannabis plants,” Takayasu says. “Every day they had to leap higher and higher because cannabis grows very quickly. I was so amazed that I told my mom I wanted to grow cannabis when I was older.”

I defy anyone coming across that opening gambit to refrain from reading on. I know I Nibbled it, but the Japan Times article on that country’s history of hemp cultivation and use, which came out a couple of days ago to commemorate 420, is much too good to leave to languish in a sidebar.

Not convinced? How about this?

…the [1948] U.S. decision to prohibit cannabis created panic among Japanese farmers. In an effort to calm their fears, Emperor Hirohito visited Tochigi Prefecture in the months prior to the ban to reassure farmers they would be able to continue to grow in defiance of the new law — a surprisingly subversive statement.

There’s lots more. I have to say, though, that what intrigued me most was this:

As well as references to cannabis plants in ninja training, they also feature in the “Manyoshu” — Japan’s oldest collection of poems — and the Edo Period (1603-1868) book of woodblock prints, “Wakoku Hyakujo.” In haiku poetry, too, key words describing the stages of cannabis cultivation denoted the season when the poem is set.

Researching that bit about haiku led me to what seems to be the mother lode on Japanese hemp culture. Which in turn eventually led me to discover that the Japanese actually have a word for seasonal words, if you see what I mean: kigo. And that there’s a database of kigo, which includes words having to do with hemp, of course. I’ll leave you with a haiku from one of the comments on that indispensable resource; not, I think, an ancient Japanese haiku, but evocative nonetheless, and apposite:

now retired
I decide soiling my hands
cannabis growing


ICARDA seeds safe

by Luigi Guarino on April 22, 2014

IMG_2175As we again hear about fighting in and around the headquarters of ICARDA near Aleppo,1 it is at least some measure of consolation that a further consignment of seeds from the genebank has made it to Svalbard. Our thoughts are with the staff that remain, and that managed, in the face of incredible odds, to make this latest shipment.

  1. Though note that other versions omit mention of ICARDA. It’s understandably difficult to know exactly what’s going on. []


A one-step approach to clarify the origin of crop species

22 April 2014

We asked Dr Dan Brock to break down his paper on the domestication of Jerusalem Artichoke. Thanks, Dan. Sandy Knapp has also had her say on this. Who needs the full text of papers these days. Identifying the wild progenitors of crops is one of the key steps we have to take if we are […]

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PNAS special feature on domestication surfaces

22 April 2014

Those of you looking for the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences big special feature on “The Modern View of Domestication” won’t find it at the URL we previously cited. Twice. You will, however, find it here. I smell another Brainfood coming… LATER: And here’s the latest press release.

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Brainfood: Prunus africana diversity, Collecting Prunus, African extension, Nepal genebank, Greek plant eBay, Pepper diversity, Pest spread, Grassland diversity, Cowpea fermentation, Pea diversity, Banana cryo, Biodiversity trends

21 April 2014

Genetic structuring of remnant forest patches in an endangered medicinal tree in North-western Ethiopia. You need to conserve a range of patches of Prunus africana, and probably not just in situ. Would have been perfect for last week’s Brainfood on the complementarity of ex situ and in situ. Using simulations to optimize genetic diversity in […]

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Special Brainfood Extra: Economic Botany, Volume 68, Number 1

20 April 2014

A whole issue of a journal given the Brainfood treatment. Because I’ve got allergies and can’t go out and it’s a holiday and I’m bored. Think of it as an Easter egg. Unnecessary, but tasty. Are Ecologically Important Tree Species the Most Useful? A Case Study from Indigenous People in the Bolivian Amazon. Among medicinal […]

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A little something to consider for Easter

20 April 2014

This picture, by Giotto, is a small part of the sumptuous Scrovegni Chapel in Padua. It shows the Wedding at Cana. And as a rather charming article by Jeremy Parzen reminds us, transforming water into wine goes well beyond a mere demonstration of awesome skillz. According to Jewish tradition, a marriage cannot be performed without […]

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Vicia video prOn for gardeners

19 April 2014

AoB blog linked to the YouTube version of this short film on a year (almost) in the life of a broad bean. Having watched it, I decided it was worth searching out a better quality version, which I duly found. Absolutely lovely. Congrats to the makers. Nah, that’s just a piece of grit in my […]

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