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Science & Technology

A Seedy Slice of History: Here’s Where Watermelons Actually Came From

Watermelon Close Up

Simply in time for picnic-table trivia, a brand new research printed within the Proceedings of the Nationwide Academy of Sciences rewrites the origins of domesticated watermelons.

Utilizing DNA from greenhouse-grown vegetation representing all species and a whole bunch of varieties of watermelon, scientists found that watermelons almost certainly got here from wild crop progenitors in northeast Africa.

The research corrects a 90-year-old mistake that lumped watermelons into the identical class because the South African citron melon. As an alternative, researchers, together with a primary writer now at Washington College in St. Louis, discovered {that a} Sudanese kind with non-bitter whitish pulp, generally known as the Kordofan melon (C. lanatus), is the closest relative of domesticated watermelons.

The genetic analysis is in line with newly interpreted Egyptian tomb work that counsel the watermelon could have been consumed within the Nile Valley as a dessert greater than 4,000 years in the past.

“Based mostly on DNA, we discovered that watermelons as we all know them at the moment — with candy, usually crimson pulp that may be eaten uncooked — have been genetically closest to wild varieties from west Africa and northeast Africa,” mentioned Susanne S. Renner, honorary professor of biology in Arts & Sciences at Washington College.

Renner is an evolutionary biologist who lately joined Washington College after 17 years working as a professor at Ludwig Maximilian College in Munich, Germany, the place she additionally served because the director of the Munich Botanical Backyard and Munich herbarium.

Her lab has lengthy targeted on honey melons and cucumbers, however for the previous 10 years she has turned to watermelons and bitter gourds.

The genetic data printed within the new research — accomplished with colleagues from the U.S. Division of Agriculture in Ithaca, New York; the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew in London; and the College of Sheffield — may very well be helpful for growing a extra disease-resistant watermelon crop, Renner mentioned.

“At the moment’s watermelon comes from a really small genetic inventory and is very prone to illnesses and bug pests, together with numerous mildews, different fungi, viruses, and nematodes [worms],” Renner mentioned. “Up to now, we discovered variation in three illness resistance genes between the Kordofan melon and the domesticated watermelon. Breeders would possibly use these and different insights from the genome.”

However some of the best takeaways from this research, Renner mentioned, are associated to the mobility of folks and their cultural connections.

“It was the Egyptian tomb work that satisfied me that the Egyptians have been consuming chilly watermelon pulp,” Renner mentioned. “In any other case, why place these enormous fruits on flat trays subsequent to grapes and different candy fruits?”

“Melons, cucumbers, and watermelons have been domesticated a number of occasions” throughout human historical past, she mentioned. “However to position these domestications in house and title is way more troublesome than I believed 10 to fifteen years in the past. DNA from historical seeds is already starting to assist.”

Reference: “A chromosome-level genome of a Kordofan melon illuminates the origin of domesticated watermelons” by Susanne S. Renner, Shan Wu, Oscar A. Pérez-Escobar, Martina V. Silber, Zhangjun Fei and Guillaume Chomicki, 24 Might 2021, Proceedings of the Nationwide Academy of Sciences.
DOI: 10.1073/pnas.2101486118

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