Jul 16, 2020 - Science

What art history and genetics tell us about fruit and vegetables

Painting of fruit displayed on a table
Jan Davidsz de Heem, "Still Life with Wine, Fruit and Oysters." Photo: Sepia Times/Universal Images Group via Getty Images

The plants we eat have a long history on Earth, steered in part by human behaviors and preferences for color, taste and size.

How it works: A pair of researchers in Belgium is combining art history and genetics to try to link genetic mutations in fruits, vegetables and other plants to changes in their appearance, or phenotype, over time.

The big picture: The story of plants is intertwined with the history of mankind, says plant biologist Ive De Smet, co-author of an essay detailing the approach this week in Trends in Plant Science.

  • What the researchers call #ArtGenetics, "can demonstrate when and where particular varieties emerged, how common they were, and what correlation existed between food habits, trade routes, and newly conquered lands," De Smet and art historian David Vergauwen write.

The challenge: DNA from ancient specimens and written texts can help to trace the natural history of plants.

  • But there are gaps in knowledge about what plants looked like and the research can be "costly, time consuming, and often involves researchers descending into ancient cesspits and muddy wells," they write.

Instead, they propose using imagery of fruits, vegetables and other plants along with genomic information to pinpoint important changes in plants — and tie them to human forces and natural variation.

Yes, but: An artist's interpretation of food — from Picasso's abstraction of apples (case in point, I think they are apples) to Beuckelaer's season-defying market offerings — could lead to incorrect conclusions.

  • The authors say if an artist paints a building in accurate detail, one may reasonably assume the same of any vegetables. Or if a fruit is similarly represented in various paintings or by different artists from the same region, it may be a realistic depiction.
  • They propose using roses as a "non-food control" because the ways in which they've been domesticated over thousands of years are well-known.
  • The other limitation: Finding art that includes fruits and vegetables, which are often omitted from titles and descriptions, and works may be hidden in private collections.

What's next: The researchers are asking people to provide pictures of paintings to build a public database for their work.

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