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Plant Links of the Day: Diverse Citrus, Extinct Cucurbits, and more

When I woke up (which yes, was only a couple hours ago, but remember I’m on pacific time) I found a whole bunch of interesting plant links waiting in my RSS reader, and I thought I’d pass along a few to you guys.

Keith Robinson writing over at Omics! Omics! posted Celebrating Citrus where he catelogs some of the diversity available to him from local grocery stores before pointing out a citrus review article that suggests all that diversity can be traced back to only three wild species and wraps it up by pointing out the project to sequence the sweet orange genome.

Imagine if you could have a whole series of clementine-like fruits, with the size & easy peeling characteristics but with the whole range of other citrus flavors and colors genetically grafted in — cara cara clementines and blood clementines and ruby red clementines and perhaps even sweet lemontines and key clemenlimes.

Highly recommended.

The Biogeography of Darwin’s Gourd is a post I discovered through research blogging (speaking of which I should really write another entry that meets their standards some day). The gourd of the title is Sicyos villosus, a cucurbit (the group of plants that includes squashes, melons, and pumpkins) collected by Darwin from one of the islands in the Galapagos the better part of two centuries ago … and never again recorded by science. At this point the dried sample collected by Darwin may be the only existence the species ever lived:

The analysis of the cucurbit’s DNA, extracted from the seed samples taken by Darwin, revealed that¬†S. villosus is closest in relation to cucurbits in North America and Mexico. The species probably diverged roughly 4 mya, when the Galapagos were still geologically young. Dispersal was not human in origin, meaning long distance from the mainland, potentially from its spiny fruits stuck to birds, the authors suggest.

How cool is it that we can learn so much from a single sample of a species that has otherwise vanished from the earth?

Finally, by way of DailyKos, comes a pointer to this valentine’s day themed article, clearly written for the non-scientist, where a summary written by me seems superfluous given the title: Sex, Drugs, and Paleo-botany! And yes, the exclamation point is in the original title as well.

Sugar Belle Citrus and Patents

Mandarin Orange (Not a Sugar Belle)

Mandarin Orange (Not a Sugar Belle) from dungodung on flickr

We’ve been talking about grains and genetic engineering strait for a few days, so I thought it’d be the perfect time to put up a story about conventionally bred citrus. The University of Florida put out a press release about a new mandarin orange breed developed by Fred Gmitter, called Sugar Belle. The fruit is of course described as delicious and it may well be, I can’t say one way or the other. Importantly to a different group of people (producers rather than consumers of citrus fruit), the fruit matures 4-6 weeks earlier than other varieties of mandarin, making the harvest better timed to cater to the demand for citrus around Christmas.

Fred has been developing the breed since 1985, when he found the tree Sugar Belle was bred from in the experimental plot of another plant breeder who’d just retired. That’s twenty-four years of research and development. 1985 is the year “new coke” was released. Soviet and Western forces still faced off against each other across the Berlin Wall. If Sugar Belle was a person, it’d already be old enough to be in grad school right now.

The lesson here (one of them) is that it takes a long time to breed fruit trees.

But that’s not the only interesting thing about this story. (more…)

3.5 pounds (1.5 kilos) of Citrus

Pomelo vs Orange (2 of 3)

It’s only in the past few years that I’ve begun seeing pomelos for sale in grocery stores. I remember eating the first one I’d ever seen in Matthew’s dorm room, which puts it just over 3 years ago. The Pomelo is one of the parental species, along with the orange, of the modern grapefruit, and if you’ve never had one, the best way to imagine the flavor is to imagine the distinctive flavor of grapefruit, only stronger and less sweet. Besides flavor, the other thing to take into account when dealing with pomelos is that while the overall ¬†size of a pomelo fruit is quite impressive, the ratio of edible to inedible biomass is lower than in other commercially available citrus fruits.

Pomelo vs Orange (3 of 3)