We’ve been having fun with watermelons for hundreds of years
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Did historic Egyptian youngsters compete to see who might spit seeds the furthest as they ate watermelons? It appears doubtless, as a result of due to some DNA detective work we now know for certain that the traditional Egyptians ate domesticated watermelons with candy, purple flesh.
The wild watermelons present in elements of Africa are nothing just like the domesticated varieties. They’re small, spherical and have white flesh with a really bitter style because of compounds referred to as cucurbitacins. There’s lengthy been debate about when and the place they had been domesticated, with some suggesting it occurred in south Africa or west Africa.
Nonetheless, photos on the partitions of not less than three historic Egyptian tombs depict what appear like watermelons – together with one that appears strikingly like trendy varieties (pictured under). And within the 19th century, watermelon leaves had been discovered positioned on a mummy in a tomb relationship again round 3500 years.
When botanist Susanne Renner on the College of Munich, Germany, realized about these leaves, she realised their DNA may reveal what the traditional melons had been like. She additionally found that a few of the leaves had been despatched to the famed botanist Joseph Hooker, then head of Kew Gardens in London. “It was my love of the outdated literature,” she says.
Watermelons are depicted on the partitions of not less than three historic Egyptian tombs
Courtesy of Renner, Perez-Escobar,Silber,Nesbitt,Preick,Hofreiter,Chomicki
Mark Nesbitt at Kew gave Renner’s crew a tiny pattern of 1 leaf. He had bother opening the show case containing the leaves, she says, because it had not been opened because the leaves had been first positioned in it in 1876.
The traditional DNA was then sequenced by Renner’s colleague Guillaume Chomicki, now on the College of Oxford. The crew had been solely in a position to get a partial genome sequence, however it consists of two essential genes that reveal what these melons had been like. “We had been so fortunate,” says Renner.
One in every of these genes controls the manufacturing of the bitter cucurbitacins. Within the 3500-year-old melon, there was a mutation that disabled this gene, that means it had candy flesh identical to trendy varieties.
The opposite gene codes for an enzyme that converts the purple pigment lycopene – the identical pigment that makes tomatoes purple – into one other substance. This gene was additionally disabled by a mutation, that means lycopene accumulates and the fruit would have purple flesh.
What the crew can’t inform from the partial sequence is how massive the melons had been and whether or not they had an elongated form or spherical form. However one of many historic Egyptian photos exhibits what seems to be an elongated melon, so it appears farmers had bred watermelons with most if not the entire key options not less than 3500 years in the past.
The DNA additionally reveals that the traditional melon was intently associated to a candy watermelon with white flesh nonetheless grown within the Darfur area of Sudan. That means the watermelon was first grown by farmers on this area and using the plant then unfold northwards alongside the Nile, with additional enhancements like purple flesh occurring alongside the way in which.
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