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Enjoying wasabi or mustard? Thank a caterpillar!
by KindMeal.my, 04 July 2015
Enjoying wasabi or mustard? Thank a caterpillar!

Humans have eaten mustard in various forms for several thousand years, but its tang has a much longer — and less benign — history. The origins of mustard, along with related foods like horseradish and wasabi, date back nearly 90 million years. As a new study explains, they're the result of an "arms race" between plants and insects that's been going on since the age of dinosaurs.

Despite humans' taste for mustard, it evolved as a pest repellent. Mustard plants start by making compounds that produce pungent oils when chewed or crushed. This was prompted by relentless nibbling from butterfly larvae, but as caterpillars evolved new ways to cut the mustard, plants had to up the ante — thus growing zestier and zestier over time.

The new study, published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, sheds light on the genetics behind this co-evolution of butterflies and Brassicaceae, a plant family that includes more than 3,000 spicy species.

Interestingly, the plants' blossoms chemical composition did not change, so pollinators were not put off.

The spice of life

The pressure of this rivalry led to more biodiversity, of both plants and insects, than in other groups without the same back-and-forth battles. It also led to the spicy flavors now enjoyed by modern humans, although we're starting to discover our debt to these caterpillars and plants may be even greater than we thought.

For one, learning the secrets of natural insect repellents like these might help farmers protect crops without synthetic pesticides. "If we can harness the power of genetics and determine what causes these copies of genes," Pires says, "we could produce plants that are more pest-resistant to insects that are co-evolving with them."

And despite their effects on insects, mustard and its relatives also offer notable health benefits for humans who eat them. Mustard seeds are high in selenium and magnesium, for example, and research suggests the glucosinolates in both mustard greens and seeds may reduce the risk of heart disease and even fight cancer.

We are so conditioned to think of caterpillars as pests that this news is as eye-opening as a big mouthful of wasabi! Now we need to sit back and consider how bland many of our favourite dishes would be if this struggle between plants and caterpillars had never occurred. It also illustrates how interwoven our lives are with those of every other species on the planet. For a lovely, perfectly spiced and plant-based meal, see what's on offer this week at http://KindMeal.my, your best source for compassionate, earth-friendly, meat-free dining.

Source: http://goo.gl/tRXQaW « Back To Articles