The Loh Down On Science

Spice of Life

Are bugs snooty about condiments?

?This is Sandra Tsing Loh with the Loh Down on Science.

?Meet the wild mustard plant, <em>Boechera stricta</em>. Biologists from Duke University were curious about two different types of the plant.

?They grow in neighboring states--Montana and Colorado--so not that far apart. But they have distinctly different flavors!

?To find out why, the biologists went to the lab and analyzed each type's chemical makeup. In doing so, they pinpointed the gene responsible for the plants' spiciness. The gene’s variants determine its exact flavor.

?Then they planted fields of both types, in both states.

?What happened? In Montana, insect pests avoided the Montana mustard, but chowed down on the Colorado type. But in Colorado? Pests gobbled both kinds.

?The biologists theorize that generations ago, the Montana mustard developed a mutation so distasteful to local bugs that the mutation became common there. Possibly Colorado bugs have a higher spice tolerance. Or maybe there’s more competition for food, so beggars can’t be choosers.

?My theory? Maybe the bugs just relish mustard? Don’t get it? Ketchup!  Sorry.

<em>The Loh Down on Science</em> is produced by LDOS Media Lab, with 89.3 KPCC Pasadena, California. And made possible by the generous support of the Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation.


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