Gastropod: DNA Detectives

DNA: it’s the genetic information that makes plants and animals what we are. Most of the time when you hear about it in the context of food, it’s to do with breeding. But in this short episode of Gastropod, we bring you two DNA detective stories that show how genetic analysis can rewrite the history of agriculture and fight food fraud—at least some of the time.

Listen now to hear how preserved DNA from an underwater site off the coast of Britain is helping paint a picture of how hunter gatherers in Northern Europe might first have experienced the wonders of agriculture, by trading kernels of exotic, domesticated Near Eastern wheat over long distances.


IMAGE: The Gastropod special, photographed by its creator, Chef Clare Anne O’Keefe.

We’ll also explore DNA’s role in some controversial accusations of food fraud and introduce you to the mysterious publication that defines the official standards of identity for food ingredients. And, finally, we squeeze in a short trip to Dublin’s Science Gallery, to talk to chef Clare Anne O’Keefe about a dish that was entirely inspired by Gastropod!

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Gastropod: Say Cheese!

Cheese is the chameleon of the food world, as well as one of its greatest delights. Fresh and light or funky and earthy, creamy and melty or crystalline and crumbly—no other food offers such a variety of flavours and textures.

But cheese is not just a treat for the palate: its discovery changed the course of Western civilization, and, today, cheese rinds are helping scientists conduct cutting-edge research into microbial ecology. In this episode of Gastropod, we investigate cheese in all stinking glory, from ancient Mesopotamia to medieval France, from the origins of cheese factories and Velveeta to the growing artisanal cheese movement in the U.S.. Along the way, we search for the answer to a surprisingly complex question: what is cheese?

Join us as we bust cheese myths, solve cheese mysteries, and put together the ultimate cheese plate.

The Secret History of Cheese, or, Why the Cheese Origin Story is a Myth

This is the story you’ll often hear about how humans discovered cheese: one hot day nine thousand years ago, a nomad was on his travels, and brought along some milk in an animal stomach—a sort of proto-thermos—to have something to drink at the end of the day. But when he arrived, he discovered that the rennet in the stomach lining had curdled the milk, creating the first cheese. Unfortunately, there’s a major problem with that story, as University of Vermont cheese scientist and historian Paul Kindstedt told Gastropod: the nomads living in the Fertile Crescent of the Middle East in 7000 B.C. would have been lactose-intolerant. A nomad on the road wouldn’t have wanted to drink milk; it would have left him in severe gastro-intestinal distress.

Kindstedt, author of the book Cheese and Culture, explained that about a thousand years before traces of cheese-making show up in the archaeological record, humans began growing crops. Those early fields of wheat and other grains attracted local wild sheep and goats, which provide milk for their young. Human babies are also perfectly adapted for milk. Early humans quickly made the connection and began dairying—but for the first thousand years, toddlers and babies were the only ones consuming the milk. Human adults were uniformly lactose-intolerant, says Kindstedt. What’s more, he told us that “we know from some exciting archaeo-genetic and genomic modeling that the capacity to tolerate lactose into adulthood didn’t develop until about 5500 BC”—which is at least a thousand years after the development of cheese.

The real dawn of cheese came about 8,500 years ago, with two simultaneous developments in human history. First, by then, over-intensive agricultural practices had depleted the soil, leading to the first human-created environmental disaster. As a result, Neolithic humans began herding goats and sheep more intensely, as those animals could survive on marginal lands unfit for crops. And secondly, humans invented pottery: the original practical milk-collection containers.

In the warm environment of the Fertile Crescent region, Kinstedt explained, any milk not used immediately and instead left to stand in those newly invented containers “would have very quickly, in a matter of hours, coagulated [due to the heat and the natural lactic acid bacteria in the milk]. And at some point, probably some adventurous adult tried some of the solid material and found that they could tolerate it a lot more of it than they could milk.” That’s because about 80 percent of the lactose drains off with the whey, leaving a digestible and, likely, rather delicious fresh cheese.


Rind microbes from a Colston Bassett Stilton. Photograph courtesy of Benjamin E. Wolfe.

Cheese Changed the Course of Western Civilization

With the discovery of cheese, suddenly those early humans could add dairy to their diets. Cheese made an entirely new source of nutrients and calories available for adults, and, as a result, dairying took off in a major way. What this meant, says Kindstedt, is that “children and newborns would be exposed to milk frequently, which ultimately through random mutations selected for children who could tolerate lactose later into adulthood.”

In a very short time, at least in terms of human evolution—perhaps only a few thousand years—that mutation spread throughout the population of the Fertile Crescent. As those herders migrated to Europe and beyond, they carried this genetic mutation with them. According to Kindstedt, “It’s an absolutely stunning example of a genetic selection occurring in an unbelievably short period of time in human development. It’s really a wonder of the world, and it changed Western civilization forever.”

Tasting the First Cheeses Today

In lieu of an actual time machine, Gastropod has another trick for listeners who want to know what cheese tasted like 9,000 years ago: head to the local grocery store and pick up some ricotta or goat’s milk chevre. These cheeses are coagulated using heat and acid, rather than rennet, in much the same way as the very first cheeses. Based on the archaeological evidence of Neolithic pottery containers found in the Fertile Crescent, those early cheeses would have been made from goat’s or sheep’s milk, meaning that they likely would have been somewhat funkier than cow’s milk ricotta, and perhaps of a looser, wetter consistency, more like cottage cheese.

“It would have had a tart, clean flavour,” says Kindstedt, “and it would have been even softer than the cheese you buy at the cheese shop. It would have been a tart, clean, acidic, very moist cheese.”

So, the next time you’re eating a ricotta lasagne or cheesecake, just think: you’re tasting something very similar to the cheese that gave ancient humans a dietary edge, nearly 9,000 years ago.

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Ben Wolfe examining his in-vitro cheeses for signs of life. Photograph by Nicola Twilley.

Camembert Used to be Green

Those early cheese-making peoples spread to Europe, but it wasn’t until the Middle Ages that the wild diversity of cheeses we see today started to emerge. In the episode, we trace the emergence of Swiss cheese and French bloomy rind cheeses, like Brie. But here’s a curious fact that didn’t make it into the show: when Gastropod visited Tufts microbiologist Benjamin Wolfe in his cheese lab, he showed us a petri dish in which he was culturing the microbe used to make Camembert, Penicillium camemberti. And it was a gorgeous blue-green colour.

Wolfe explained that according to Camembert: A National Myth, a history of the iconic French cheese written by Pierre Boisard, the original Camembert cheeses in Normandy would have been that same colour, their rinds entirely colonized by Wolfe’s “green, minty, crazy” microbe. Indeed, in nineteenth-century newspapers, letters, and advertisements, Camembert cheeses are routinely described as green, green-blue, or greenish-grey.

The pure white Camembert we know and love today did not become the norm until the 1920s and 30s. What happened, according to Wolfe, is that if you grow the wild microbe “in a very lush environment, like cheese is, it eventually starts to mutate. And along the way, these white mutants that look like the thing we think of as Camembert popped up.”

In his book, Boisard attributes the rapid rise of the white mutant to human selection, arguing that Louis Pasteur’s discoveries in germ theory at the start of the twentieth-century led to a prejudice against the original “moldy”-looking green Camembert rinds, and a preference for the more hygienic-seeming pure white ones. Camembert’s green origins have since been almost entirely forgotten, even by the most traditional cheese-makers.

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Penicillium camemberti growing in a petri dish in Ben Wolfe’s lab. Photograph by Nicola Twilley.

Listen to this week’s episode of Gastropod for much more on the secret history and science of cheese, including how early cheese bureaucracy led to the development of writing, what studying microbes in cheese rinds can tell us about microbial ecology in our guts, and why in the world American cheese is dyed orange. (Hint: the color was originally seen as a sign of high quality.) Plus, Gastropod will help you put together the world’s most interesting cheese plate to wow guests at your next dinner party.

Listen here for more!

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Gastropod: Extreme Salad & Crazy Potatoes

Step away from the French fries—and even from that bag of pre-washed mixed greens lurking in the crisper drawer. It’s time to reconsider the potato and up your salad game.

In this episode of Gastropod, Cynthia and Nicky talk to science writer Ferris Jabr about the chestnut-flavored, gemstone-hued potatoes he discovered in Peru, as well as the plant breeders working to expand American potato choices beyond the Russet Burbank and Yukon Gold.

Plus we meet wild gardener Stephen Barstow, whose gorgeous megasalads include 537 different plants, to talk about ancient Norwegian rooftop onion gardens and the weedy origins of borscht. If you thought you knew your veggies, think again—and listen in!

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Gastropod: No Scrubs

In 1900, the average dairy cow in America produced 424 gallons of milk each year. By 2000, that figure had more than quadrupled, to 2,116 gallons.

In this episode of Gastropod, we explore the incredible science that transformed the American cow into a milk machine—but we also uncover the disturbing history of prejudice and animal cruelty that accompanied it.

Along the way, we’ll introduce you to the insane logic of the Lifetime Cheese Merit algorithm and the surreal bull trials of the 1920s. This is the untold story behind that most wholesome and quotidian of beverages: milk. Prepare to be horrified and amazed in equal measure.


Something extremely bizarre took place in the early decades of the twentieth century, inspired by a confluence of trends. Scientists had recently developed a deeper understanding of genetics and inherited traits; at the same time, the very first eugenics policies were being enacted in the United States. And, as the population grew, the public wanted cheaper meat and milk. As a result, in the 1920s, the USDA encouraged rural communities around the U.S. to put bulls on the witness stand—to hold a legal trial, complete with lawyers and witnesses and a watching public—to determine whether the bull was fit to breed.

Livestock breeding was a normal part of American life at the dawn of the twentieth century, according to historian Gabriel Rosenberg. The U.S., he told Gastropod, was “still largely a rural and agricultural society,” and farm animals—and thus some more-or-less scientific forms of selective breeding—were ubiquitous in American life.

Meanwhile, the eugenics movement was on the rise. Founded by Charles Darwin’s cousin, Francis Galton, eugenics held that the human race could improve itself by guided evolution—which meant that criminals, the mentally ill, and others of “inferior stock” should not be allowed to procreate and pass on their defective genes. America led the way, passing the first eugenic policies in the world. By the Second World War, twenty-nine states had passed legislation that empowered officials to forcibly sterilize “unfit” individuals.

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A scrub sire, pictured in the USDA’s pamphlet, “From Scrubs to Quality Stock.” The caption reads: “There is seldom any uniformity in scrub stock. About the only things they have in common are 4 legs, 2 horns, a hide, and a tail.”

A “Better Sires: Better Stock” accredited dairy herd.

Combine the growing population, the desire for cheap meat and milk, and the increasing popularity of eugenics, and the result, Rosenberg said, was the “Better Sires: Better Stock” program, launched by the USDA in 1919. In an accompanying essay, “Harnessing Heredity to Improve the Nation’s Live Stock,” the USDA’s Bureau of Animal Industry proclaimed that, each year, “a round billion dollars is lost because heredity has been permitted to work with too little control.” The implication: humans needed to take control—and stop letting inferior or “scrub” bulls reproduce!


The “Better Sires: Better Stock” campaign included a variety of elements to encourage farmers to mate “purebred” rather than “scrub” or “degenerate” sires with their female animals. Anyone who pledged to only use purebred stock to expand their herd was awarded a handsome certificate. USDA field agents distributed pamphlets entitled “Runts and the Remedy” and “From Scrubs to Quality Stock,” packed with charts showing incremental increases of dollar value with each improved generation as well as testimonials from enrolled farmers.

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The “Better Sires: Better Stock” certificate, awarded to farmers who pledged to use purebred rather than scrub bulls.

By far the most peculiar aspect of the campaign, however, came in 1924, when the USDA published its “Outline for Conducting a Scrub-Sire Trial.” This mimeographed pamphlet contained detailed instructions on how to hold a legal trial of a non-purebred bull, in order to publicly condemn it as unfit to reproduce.

The pamphlet calls for a cast of characters to include a judge, jury, attorneys, and witnesses for the prosecution and the defense, as well as a sheriff, who should “wear a large metal star and carry a gun,” and whose role, given the trial’s foregone conclusion, was “to have charge of the slaughter of the condemned scrub sire and to superintend the barbecue.”

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The Order of Procedure, from the USDA’s “Outline for Conducting a Scrub-Sire Trial,” 1924.

In addition to an optional funeral oration for the scrub sire and detailed instructions regarding the barbecue or other refreshments (“bologna sandwiches, boiled wieners, or similar products related to bull meat” are recommended), the pamphlet also includes a script that begins with the immortal lines: “Hear ye! Hear ye! The honorable court of bovine justice of ___ County is now in session.”

The County’s case against the scrub bull is laid out: that he is a thief for consuming “valuable provender” while providing no value in return, that he is an “unworthy father,” and that his very existence is “detrimental to the progress and prosperity of the public at large.”

Several pages and roughly two hours later, the trial concludes with the following stage direction: “The bull is led away and a few moments later a shot is fired.”

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The verdict (a foregone conclusion), from the USDA’s “Outline for Conducting a Scrub-Sire Trial,” 1924.

Within a month of publication, the USDA reported receiving more than 500 requests for its scrub-sire trial pamphlets. Across the country, the court of bovine justice was convened at county fairs, cattle auctions, and regional farmers’ association meetings, forming a popular and educational entertainment.


These bull trials may seem like a forgotten, bizarre, and ultimately amusing quirk of history, but, as Rosenberg reminded Gastropod, “they are talking about a lot more than just cattle genetics here.”

Indeed, the very same year—1924—that the USDA published its “Outline for Conducting a Scrub-Sire Trial,” the State of Virginia passed a Eugenical Sterilization Law. Immediately, Dr. Albert Sidney Priddy, Director of the Virginia State Colony for Epileptics and Feebleminded, filed a petition to sterilize Carrie Buck, an 18-year-old whom he claimed had a mental age of 9, and who had already given birth to a supposedly feeble-minded daughter (following a rape).

Buck’s case went all the way to the Supreme Court, with Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr., upholding the decision in a 1927 ruling that concluded: “Three generations of imbeciles are enough.” Historians estimate that more than 60,000 Americans were sterilized in the decades leading up to the Second World War, with many more persecuted under racist immigration laws and marriage restrictions.

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Still from “When the Cows Come Home,” a USDA Extension film, c. 1935, extolling the benefits of livestock improvement. At one point, the voiceover intones: “Domestic animals are supposed to be the slaves of man, but the man who owns a low-producing, non-profitable herd has this idea reversed.” Via the Prelinger Archives.

Eugenics, with its philosophical kinship to Nazism, largely fell out of favor in the U.S. by World War II. But the ideas promoted in the bull trials—that humans can and should take increasing control of animal genetics in order to design the perfect milk machine—have gained ground throughout the past century, as breeding has become ever more technologically advanced.

As we discuss in this episode of Gastropod, the drive to improve dairy cattle through livestock breeding has led to huge innovations—in IVF, in genomics, and in big data analysis—as well as much more milk. But it has also continued, for better and for worse, to highlight the ethical problems that stem from this kind of techno-utopian approach to reproduction.

Listen now to find out more about the bull trials of the 1920s and meet the most valuable bull in the world, as we explore the history and the high-tech genomic science behind livestock breeding today. Along the way, we tease out its larger, thought-provoking, and frequently deeply troubling implications for animal welfare and society in general.

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Gastropod: Enhanced Eating with Dan Pashman

Have you ever wondered how to avoid sandwich sogginess, what scented soap to pair with your restaurant order, and whether airplane food can be made to taste of anything at all?

Dan Pashman, host of The Sporkful, has, and his new book, Eat More Better, is filled with deeply researched, science-based hacks to improve your everyday eating. In this episode of Gastropod, Pashman shares his pro tips and dream lunchbox design: listen, learn, and win a copy of his book for yourself.

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Pear Bulb

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IMAGE: “Die Glühbirne,” 2015, from “The Light Inside,” photograph by Radu Zaciu.

German slang for light bulb is “die Glühbirne,” or “the glow pear.” As Romanian photograph Radu Zaciu explained to Petapixel, his latest series, “The Light Inside,” was originally inspired by this word play.

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IMAGE: Photograher Radu Zaciu preparing a cauliflower; photograph via Petapixel.


IMAGE: “Apocalypse Now—The Cauliflower,” 2015, from “The Light Inside,” photograph by Radu Zaciu.

Starting with a pear, Zaciu has been drilling and carving holes into fruits and vegetables, inserting a light bulb, and then photographing the glowing produce in a darkened room. The results are gorgeous, from the liquid magma of the cauliflower to the delicate, protoplasmic green waves of a tightly furled cabbage.

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IMAGE: “Cabbage–green,” 2015, rom “The Light Inside,” photograph by Radu Zaciu.

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IMAGE: “Fennel,” 2015, rom “The Light Inside,” photograph by Radu Zaciu.

Visit Zaciu’s Flickr page for more photographs in the series and Petapixel for more detail on his technique.

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Gastropod: Breakfast of Champions

Breakfast: the most important meal of the day. Or is it? In this episode of Gastropod, we explore the science and history behind the most intentionally designed, the most industrialized, and the most argued about meal of all.

Armed with a healthy dose of caffeine chronopharmacology, we embark on a global breakfast tour that exposes the worldwide dominance of Nutella, as well as the toddler kimchi acclimatization process. Meanwhile, back in the U.S., we trace the American breakfast’s evolution from a humble mash-up of leftover dinner foods to its eighteenth-century explosion into a feast of meats, griddle cakes, eel, and pie—followed swiftly by a national case of indigestion and a granola-fueled backlash. Breakfast has been a battleground ever since: in this episode, we not only explain why, but also serve up the best breakfast contemporary science can provide.


Much has been made about the importance of a good breakfast to a healthy lifestyle. It gives you energy to start your day, according to conventional wisdom, and scientific studies conducted a decade ago had proclaimed that eating breakfast was the key to maintaining a healthy weight.

Breakfast skippers are plagued with well-meaning spouses, partners, family members, and friends, all insisting that they should eat something in the morning. But, according to nutrition scientist P. K. Newby, that advice was based on what’s known as observational studies, in which scientists follow groups of people and observe the outcomes. The result had seemed to indicate that people who lost weight or maintained a healthy weight ate breakfast. The problem, Newby told us, is that those studies didn’t isolate breakfast as the important factor. It could be, she says, that those who lost weight also exercised more, or one of dozens of other variables.

Then, last year, a group of researchers at the University of Alabama published a study that took a more rigorous look at this question. They enlisted 300 participants and randomly assigned them to eat breakfast, to skip breakfast, or to simply go about their normal routine. After 16 weeks, they found no difference in weight loss among the three groups. Meanwhile, in a similarly controlled Cornell University study, people who skipped breakfast consumed fewer calories by the end of the day. And, in a smaller study at the University of Bath, people who skipped breakfast also seem to have consumed slightly fewer calories during the day, though they then expended slightly less energy.

Based on this new research, the bottom line, Newby says, is this: if you’re not hungry in the morning, there’s no harm in skipping breakfast when it comes to weight management. “It’s the what that is more important than the when, when it comes to breakfast,” she says, which also means that grabbing a sugary muffin, doughnut, or other pastry, just to eat something in the morning, is a worse idea than eating nothing at all.


It’s January, and everybody on the Internet has embarked on a juice cleanse. But you don’t have to feel guilty for sticking to solids: without the accompanying fiber in fruit, juice delivers a straight shot of sugar.

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Photograph by Viktor Rosenfeld.

Juice, like sugary cereals, muffins, and white bread, is “quickly metabolized,” said Newby. “These foods lead to a spike in sugar and insulin, and then it dissipates. And so then, in a short period of time, you feel hungry again.” That, she continues, can lead to overeating and weight gain. And there are long-term health consequences as well: she says diets high in refined carbohydrates are a risk factor for type 2 diabetes and cardiovascular disease.

Newby says that the most important thing to understand about breakfast is that it’s simply another meal. It may seem as though we should eat only breakfast foods—cereal, juice, bagels—at breakfast time, but, as historian Abigail Carroll explains during this episode of Gastropod, that’s just a historical hangover from nineteenth-century American health reformers. And, as Newby points out, we already know what makes a healthy meal at any time of day: put vegetables at the center of the plate, accompanied by whole grains, beans, nuts, and healthy fats.


Though Newby says that it’s what you eat that matters, not when, that may not be the case when it comes to coffee. We spoke to neuroscience PhD candidate Steven Miller, studying at the Uniformed Services University of the Health Sciences, about chronopharmacology, or the science of how brain chemistry interacts with drugs, in order to learn how timing affects the most popular stimulant in the world: caffeine.

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Photograph by trophygeek.

Cortisol, the stress hormone that helps us feel alert and energized, peaks at about 8 or 9am, at least for people who work a typical 9-to-5 job and sleep during the same hours each night. Most people, says Miller, don’t need caffeine to give them a boost at a time they’re already naturally alert. In addition, drinking a caffeinated beverage at a time when you’re already sharp could lead to desensitization, which, Miller explains, means that you’ll need an increasing amount of the drug—in this case caffeine—to get the same effect.

For the best morning buzz based on brain biology, Miller recommends saving your coffee fix until 9:30am, when cortisol levels are starting to drop off.

He admits, though, that his recommendation doesn’t hold true for everyone: anyone whose sleep schedule is not regular or who works evening or night shifts will have a different cortisol production rhythm. In fact, he actually doesn’t follow his own chronopharmacological advice. Miller told Gastropod that, as a neuroscience PhD student, he works long, irregular hours and gets little sleep, and he always starts off his day, at any hour, with an extra strong caffeinated beverage.


Miller’s decision to design his coffee routine around his work schedule, rather than biology, isn’t surprising given the history of breakfast. As we learn from journalist Malia Wollan, while breakfast foods may be different all around the world, it’s the first meal to change in immigrant households. And, as Three Squares author Abigail Carroll explains, those classic American breakfast foods can be traced directly back to the Industrial Revolution and its transformation of labor—combined with some entrepreneurial innovations in processing, packaging, and marketing that were first pioneered in breakfast cereal but went on to transform the American diet. To learn more about the revolutionary history, global peculiarities, and surprising science of breakfast, listen to our latest episode!

You may also enjoy this Edible Geography review of Abigail Carroll’s Three Squares from November 2013.

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Holy Radish Water, Scientists!

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IMAGE: Bottles of holy water (available at the Sacramentals Foundation of Omaha, Nebraska) and a radish.

In a paper published in the journal Psychological Reports in 1979, Sandra Lenington measured the mean growth of 12 radish seeds watered with holy water against that of 12 radish seeds watered with tap water. It was not, Lenington concluded, “significantly different.”

Lenington, a life coach specialising in “Radiant Recovery” whose career has included spells as a research engineer at NASA Ames and as a Curves franchise owner, initiated her experiment in an attempt to reproduce the findings of Canon William V. Rauscher, who had previously reported “that canna plants given holy water left over from use in from use in religious services grew more than three times higher than canna plants which were not given holy water.”

Having secured a glass container full of holy water from a local church that used the same municipal source as the Santa Clara University tap water, as well as two identical watering cans, Lenington watered her seedlings every other day for three weeks and then measured them. After reporting her null finding, she goes on to speculate that Rauscher’s previous results might have been due to his belief in the power of holy water to affect plant growth. In her own case, she writes, “the author had no expectations of the outcome.”

Another critical difference was that Rauscher had dipped his hands in his holy water, whereas the water received by Lenington’s radishes had only been blessed. “Is the ‘laying on of hands’ necessary or helpful for a transfer of energy to take place?” Lenington wonders. “Future work to check differences in growth rates of plants given prayer while being touched versus plants given prayer alone might prove interesting.”

Finally, a more mundane consideration: the holy water was only changed weekly, meaning that “it was necessarily older and had been sitting a little longer than the tap water.”

Despite the irresistible temptation to giggle at this experiment—it, like many of my favourite examples of scientific research, has been featured in the Annals of Improbable Research—it also serves as an interesting reminder of a recurring debate in plant science: the thorny question of plant intelligence.

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IMAGE: L. Ron Hubbard, better known as the founder of Scientology, attempting to measure whether tomatoes experience pain, in 1968. Photo: Getty Images.

As Michael Pollan pointed out in his recent essay for the New Yorker, a New Age-inspired belief in plant sentience was not uncommon in the 1970s. Former C.I.A. analyst Clive Backster had spent the late 1960s measuring plant-human thought transference by attaching a polygraph machine to tomatoes and bananas, and The Secret Life of Plants was a nonfiction best-seller when it was published in 1973. Seen in this context, Sandra Lenington’s holy water-irrigated radishes tell us less about vegetables, and rather more about humans and the limitations of the conceptual structures from within which we examine the world.

What is fascinating is that, although many of these original experiments have since been discredited, botanists have recently, if tentatively, returned to the idea of plant intelligence. And, just as Lenington did in 1979, they have done so using the dominant metaphors of our time. The scientists quoted in Pollan’s (fascinating) article draw heavily on twenty-first century buzz words to explain plant-based phenomena: “modular,” “resilience,” “emergent,” and “networks” are all used repeatedly.

Just as the new technology of the railway provided an analogy that helped Einstein to develop, as well as explain, his theory of relativity, and just as the invention of the telephone both reflected and structured how scientists understood the human nervous system, so, too, it seems with our ability to understand how a plant experiences and functions in the world: it is both expanded and limited by the available metaphors. From telekinesis to distributed intelligence, we think like our technology when we try to think like a plant.

Previously in vegetable metaphors on Edible Geography: “The Carrot Hack”. Sandra Lenington’s study discovered via @kyledropp.

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Outsourcing the Mouth

Until recently, the question of whether an apple was truly ripe could only be answered by destroying it.

The human mouth, with its variety of multi-functional sensory detection mechanisms, provides the traditional—and, until recently, the most reliable—guide. But once an apple has been bitten, there is, as Eve reminds us, no going back.

For eaters, this is a simply one of life’s occasional but inevitable disappointments: a mouthful of tasteless mush or eye-watering acid instead of the sweet, crisp crunch of a perfect apple. For fruit growers, it is a serious financial liability. The quality and storage-life of their season’s crop—and thus its value—depend on harvesting the apples at peak ripeness.

Industry standard ripeness-detection tools add up to little more than a disassembled mouth: the hole-punch-like penetrometer, which, like the human jaw, assesses flesh firmness; the refractometer, a taste bud analogue that measure sugar levels; and the iodine test, which operates in reverse, exposing sugar’s absence. (Iodine reacts with starch, dyeing the apple’s not-yet-sweet tissue purple-black.) All three methods, like their inspiration, the human mouth, require the sacrifice of an apple or several.

McIntosh Starch Ripeness

IMAGE: Starch iodine test guide for harvesting Red Delicious apples, via.

But, as I write in a new post for The New Yorker, a new technique that relies on the granular interference patterns generated by a perceptual mechanism that lies outside human anatomical reach: the laser.

Laser Biospeckle Experiment

IMAGE: Laser biospeckle measurement array. Photograph by Rana Nassif.

Finally, no apples have to suffer in order to determine a fruit’s peak ripeness: that elusive moment of maximum crunch and sweetness, before the inexorable softening sets in. The mouth, released from its analytical responsibilities, can dedicate itself entirely to a retirement of guaranteed pleasure.

For more on the laser-filled orchards of the future, read my story in full at The New Yorker.

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Gastropod: Night of the Living Radishes

For this special New Year episode, Gastropod transports you to Oaxaca, Mexico, for the legendary Night of the Radishes, celebrated the night before Christmas eve, where locals present their most elaborate and inventive radish carvings. You’ll also get a taste of entomophagy, otherwise known as the practice of eating bugs, when Cynthia and her partner Tim try chapulines, or grasshoppers, for the first time.

The Night of the Radishes has taken place in the central square, or zocalo, of Oaxaca on December 23, every year for the past 117 years, since 1897. Originally intended as a way to decorate produce stands and attract Christmas shoppers, the festival now attracts more than a hundred participants, and thousands of tourists and locals alike wait for more than four hours for a glimpse at the carved scenes.

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IMAGE: Radish musicians. Photograph by Cynthia Graber.

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IMAGE: Native god in radish form. Photograph by Cynthia Graber.

Fruit and vegetable carving as a way to attract custom is a time-honored tradition that is still alive and well in Mexico’s markets. As Nicky mentions in the episode, vendors at Mexico City’s La Central de Abasto, the largest wholesale market in the world, spend hours carving watermelon and mamey into pyramids, rosettes, and even monstrous mouths.

2013 10 14 202 Bodega del Arte carved watermelon 460

IMAGE: Carved watermelon on display at La Central de Abasto’s in-house art gallery. Photographed by Nicola Twilley during her two-week residency at the market with the Laboratorio Para La Ciudad.

While the radishes are inedible, insects are very definitely on the menu in Oaxaca. In the episode, we discuss some of the benefits of entomophagy: in a 2013 paper, the Food & Agriculture Organization of the United Nations argued that the “mini-livestock” contain high-quality protein, amino acids, and omega-3 fatty acids, and require about a quarter of the feed to yield the same amount of “meat” as beef, as well as much less water. Insects also create significantly less pollution than cattle, sheep, or chickens, and need a smaller amount of land for cultivation.

The problem, of course, is that to many Western eyes, insects are disgusting.

For Cynthia and Tim’s first insect-eating experience, they made sure to try a dish that paired the bugs with two of Cynthia’s favorite Oaxacan products: hierba santa, a slightly anise-flavored leaf, and a thick layer of a melted Oaxacan cheese called quesillo.

Chapulines 460

IMAGE: Chapulines with hierba santa and quesillo. Photograph by Cynthia Graber.

As Tim said, it looks exactly as if the grasshoppers climbed onto the leaves, got stuck in the cheese, and died there. Mmm…

Gastropod is the fortnightly podcast that explores food through the lens of science and history. I co-host with award-winning science writer Cynthia Graber; you can find us online at, follow us @gastropodcast, and subscribe via iTunes, Stitcher, RSS, or email.

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