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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.

Go deeper

16 mins ago - Politics & Policy

Sarah Huckabee Sanders to run for governor of Arkansas

Sarah Huckabee Sanders at FOX News' studios in New York City in 2019. Photo: Steven Ferdman/Getty Images

Former White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders will announce Monday that she's running for governor of Arkansas.

The big picture: Sanders was touted as a contender after it was announced she was leaving the Trump administration in June 2019. Then-President Trump tweeted he hoped she would run for governor, adding "she would be fantastic." Sanders is "seen as leader in the polls" in the Republican state, notes the Washington Post's Josh Dawsey, who first reported the news.

Updated 34 mins ago - World

Mexican President López Obrador tests positive for coronavirus

Mexico's President Andrés Manuel López Obrador during a press conference at National Palace in Mexico City, Mexico, on Wednesday. Photo: Ismael Rosas/Eyepix Group/Barcroft Media via Getty Images

Mexican President Andrés Manuel López Obrador announced Sunday evening that he's tested positive for COVID-19.

Driving the news: López Obrador tweeted that he has mild symptoms and is receiving medical treatment. "As always, I am optimistic," he added. "We will all move forward."

Coronavirus has inflamed global inequality

Illustration: Aïda Amer/Axios

History will likely remember the pandemic as the "first time since records began that inequality rose in virtually every country on earth at the same time." That's the verdict from Oxfam's inequality report covering the year 2020 — a terrible year that hit the poorest, hardest across the planet.

Why it matters: The world's poorest were already in a race against time, facing down an existential risk in the form of global climate change. The coronavirus pandemic could set global poverty reduction back as much as a full decade, according to the World Bank.