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Using #ArtGenetics To Paint The Full Picture Of Fruit And Vegetable Evolution

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“He was a biologist, he did art history, what more can I say?” Liesbeth Everaert

At some point or other, we have all planned a business with our best friend. Whilst most never come to fruition, lifelong friends Ive De Smet and David Vergauwen have overcome the odds to conjure up a unique approach to uncovering the history of plants. Fusing together their backgrounds in plant biology and art history, respectively, De Smet and Vergauwen have created the field of #ArtGenetics – the use of artwork to fill in the evolutionary gaps of many modern-day fruits, vegetables, and cereal crops.

“We may have some of the genetic code for certain ancient plants, but often not well-preserved samples,” De Smet, of VIB-UGent Center for Plant Systems Biology, Belgium, explained in a statement, “so looking at art can help put these species on a time map and track down their evolution.”

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One example that has already proved fruitful is the ancient Egyptian depiction of watermelons. Their familiar light-and-dark green stripes were seen in this old imagery, which when combined with DNA extracted from a watermelon leaf in an Egyptian tomb, suggests that the fruit was domesticated more than 4,000 years ago. However, the duo are also interested in more “modern” artwork as well.

“During a trip a couple of years ago, we were standing in front of a painting and there was a piece of fruit that we didn't immediately recognize,” De Smet said. “He, [Vergauwen], asked me what I thought it was and I said I didn't really know, and that maybe it was a bad painter. But he told me this was actually one of the best painters from the 17th century. So, if that's how the fruit was depicted, that's how it should look.”

Wheat has been one of the species of particular interest. Liesbeth Everaert

This touches upon one of the challenges the pair’s project faces: reliability. Not all artists depict objects as they appear in reality, which means you can’t infer that carrots were purple, for example, just from one portrayal. “If you were interested in determining how a certain fruit or vegetable looked, and you used Picasso as a reference, you might get the wrong impression of its appearance,” Vergauwen, a lecturer at Amarant College, Ghent, said in a statement.

Further challenges lie in the accessibility of certain collections, and in the descriptions of online catalogues, which the friends describe in an article in Trends in Plant Science. Many fruits and vegetables border some figures in artworks, like woodland strawberries at the feet of the Virgin Mary for instance, which may not be indicated by the caption.

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To help improve their database, De Smet and Vergauwen are appealing to all museum-goers and art aficionados who encounter any fruits and vegetables to take a picture (respecting any rules in place) of the descriptive placard, artwork, and any information provided about the plant-based food and send it to ArtGeneticsDavidIve@gmail.com. Ultimately, the information will be incorporated into an open-access database that will help to tap into the scientific potential of art from around the world.


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