The Most Dangerous Fruit in America
To start our watermelon adventure, we called one of the world's great watermelon. Harry Paris he has worked on watermelon science per years as part of Israel's agricultural research. Service. Well, I think the first thing that comes to the first two syllables water right? This is a true rich table. which has a lot of water and which actually probably the first use by people of this particular natural products. Was To quench thirst I've spent summers in Israel, and it is basically watermelon paradise but that's not actually were Harry I fell in love with a watermelon it all started when his dad grew watermelons in the backyard in their home in Brooklyn in the nineteen sixties then Harry gave watermelon farming himself fifteen years old and there was a new variety called Crimson sweets that came out and plans at a few seats in the garden and Lo and behold by the fall we got one nice big sweet high quality watermelon fruit. That we grew in the backyard in Brooklyn and from then on I was just hoped. Harry was well ahead of the local war hipster curve in Brooklyn but the watermelon is neither from Brooklyn nor from Israel, in fact, its origins are a little bit of a mystery. One of the big headlines was back in the mid nineteenth century when the British explorer David Livingstone went to the southern African deserts and low and behold. It was the year in which there was more rain than average and he found a large areas just covered with wild watermelons. He's wild watermelons were hard but does the name says have water say to pound them and so on and so forth but you could squeeze the water out of them David Livingston was searching for the source of the Nile. But apparently, he was also as a side hustle looking for other sources like the source of our sweet watermelons and people thought he'd founded the wild ancestor but Livingston was wrong about the source of the Nile and as it turns out now. We know he was wrong about those wild watermelons to now that scientists can examine the DNA of melons. They found that the Kalahari desert wild melon that Livingston came upon is not the ancestor of our sweet watermelon. But DNA is just one of the tools that scientists are using to try to figure out where and when the watermelon was domesticated, you can't just use one approach. You have to use an archaeology approach you have to use clients science you have to use. Linguistics you have to go into literature some of it'll some of an ancient. And even more than that. Of course, with the latest that we know genetics and genome can assist us first of all the plant Science Livingston was at least on the right continent because there are wild watermelons of various different species all over. Africa. So the wild relatives watermelon their fruits are smaller and rounder not elongate. They have often perfectly round it small fruits the outside looks like a watermelon like little, green and white. But inside they all have this extremely bitter and usually white. Whitish pulpits azan Renner is a professor of biology at the University of Munich and she's another one of the world's watermelon expert Suzanne's as you could boil these Super Beta watermelons for jam or you could use them medicinally as kind of a purge to clean out your insides. Basically, the wild watermelon wasn't a tasty thing to eat raw at all. So where the desert watermelon comes from, there are two things that have to happen to these bitter wild melons to turn them into the watermelons. We love today to specific genetic mutations. The first one is a mutation. That switches off the production of bitchy chemicals and so this mutation occurs in nature as bad for the plan because the plant of course has this bitterness to defend itself not eaten so that the fruits would not be yeah for the plan is better to lose the bitterness but for us, it's good and we can only imagine that native people every once in a while tried one of these melons maybe for what may be hoping for something to chew on and found some that wasn't bitter Suzanne's scientists know what that mutation is and how to find it in. A melon they just to look and the second mutation is the one that turned it red inside rather than white the red colors also well understood this is well studied and it's a completely different set of teens. This is and other scientists know exactly which two mutations they're looking for. Those mutations aren't common and wild melon. So when did they happen? When were watermelons domesticated Harry says the place to look for those clues is archaeology in ancient Egyptian tombs. Archaeologists have found paintings of whole watermelons on a platter there oblong and striped watermelons today not round like the. Wild bitter ones but did those ancient Egyptian watermelons taste like the ones we eat did they have the mutations for sweetness and maybe for the red color the painting can't really tell you that. But fortunately, some other watermelon evidence has showed up in a four thousand year old Egyptian tomb complex the seeds and leaves from the tomb ended up at the q Royal Botanic Gardens in England Suzanne wanted to find out if those remains held any clues about whether the watermelon had already been domesticated by them. So she wrote to mark Nesbitt who coincidentally starred in our tonic. And who runs the economic botany collection at Q. and she asked if she could borrow a watermelon leaf from the tomb, it was in a glass box encased in a box and he opd mark opened it, and he said it hadn't been opened since eighteen seventy one or whenever singles arrived there then and her colleagues analyzed demand the leaf and I they were thrilled the watermelon leaf DNA did in fact, have the mutations that would have made the fruit sweet and read but then when you see fourteen Dating for this material that we had received for Mark Nesbitt, it turned out it was much younger than we thought it turns out the watermelon material in the two had been left there by a later visitor carbon dating showed it was from the late eighteen hundreds huge bummer.