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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

"Atmospheric river" swings Northern California from drought to flood

Satellite view of the bomb cyclone swirling off the coast of the Pacific Northwest and the atmospheric river affecting California on Oct. 24. (CIRA/RAMMB)

A series of powerful "atmospheric river" storms are delivering historic amounts of rainfall across parts of drought-stricken California and the Pacific Northwest this weekend, forecasters warn.

Why it matters: The strong atmospheric river, packing large amounts of moisture, is causing Northern California to whiplash from drought to flood.

Mike Allen, author of AM
7 hours ago - Politics & Policy

Fauci fires back at Rand Paul for slam on tonight's "Axios on HBO"

Responding to charges by Sen. Rand Paul on Sunday's "Axios on HBO," NIAID director Anthony Fauci told "ABC This Week" that it's "molecularly impossible" for U.S.-funded bat virus research in China to have produced COVID-19.

Why it matters: The issue 0f Wuhan research was reignited on the right last week with a National Institutes of Health letter to Congress disclosing more about the research.

Manchin, Schumer huddle with Biden in Delaware to discuss spending bill

Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (left) and Sen. Joe Manchin at the U.S. Capitol in 2014. Photo: Win McNamee/Getty Images

Sen. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.) will meet with President Biden and Senate Majority Leader Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.) on Sunday morning in Delaware as Democrats look to reach an agreement on the massive spending measure.

Driving the news: Democrats are still negotiating what to keep in the bill and how to pay for it, with Biden saying on Thursday that the party does not have the votes to raise the corporate tax rate.