A bounty of scientific inspiration at your Thanksgiving table

Haley Bridger, November 22nd, 2011 | Filed under
  • Image by Lauren Solomon, Broad Communications.
    Photo courtesy of ©iStockphoto.com/Morgan Lane Studios

From the Archives: We've delved into the BroadMinded blog archives to bring you this post, which was originally published in November 2010.

At the risk of catching a bad case of YAGS right before the holidays, I googled “turkey genome” this week to see what’s cooking in the world of poultry genomics. It turns out that scientists have already mapped about 90 percent of the turkey’s genome and are learning about genes that influence things like meat quality, disease susceptibility, and turkey reproduction and fertility. You can read more about the turkey genome project here.

Finding out a little bit about the turkey genome made me wonder: what other dishes on the Thanksgiving table have inspired scientific inquiry? Here are a few:

Cranberry sauce: Researchers at Rutgers University want to learn more about cranberries and their health benefits. The university is home to the Philip E. Marucci Center for Blueberry and Cranberry Research and Extension, where scientists are investigating ways to protect the berries from disease and are trying to identify the natural compounds in the berries that have beneficial health properties. Many people consume cranberry products – especially cranberry juice or vitamin supplements – to stave off urinary tract infections, but further research is needed to find exactly how and why cranberries have their effect.

Corn bread: Corn, with its diversity of kernel colors and shapes and its ability to grow and breed easily, is a staple in agriculture as well as genetics. Today, the 19th century monk Gregor Mendel is best known for his research on pea plants, but he also conducted important experiments on corn, or maize. Renowned geneticist Barbara McClintock also used corn in her studies – she found that an ear of corn’s multi-colored kernels are the result of spontaneous chromosome breaks caused by jumping genes (transposons). Corn is a major world crop and in 2008, researchers sequenced its genome with the goal of better understanding corn’s susceptibility to drought and disease.

Mashed potatoes: As we eat baked, mashed, or roasted potatoes, we can be thankful that Phytophthora infestans spared them! This is the organism that causes late blight and was responsible for the Irish potato famine in the mid-19th century. P. infestans is a water mold that’s actually more closely related to the parasite that causes malaria than to fungi. An international team of researchers (which included Broad scientists) sequenced this pathogen’s genome last year and made a number of interesting observations about this pest. You can read more here.

Thanksgiving also sparks a lot of chemistry questions, and you can find out some of the answers by watching this video from the American Chemical Society. If another dish at your Thanksgiving feast is the source of scientific discovery, please leave a comment.