As spring gears up I’ve been thinking a lot about gardening. We’re going to try growing more food this year and I’ve been researching vegetables that are easy to grow in
Some of you know this but a really great fact is that the simple act of putting one’s hands in soil releases endorphins in the brain. I haven’t been able to track down a primary source for this fact so if you know of one please leave me a comment. I’m quite confident it is true, though, from secondary sources and, more importantly, personal experience. Working in the garden just makes me feel good. And that’s directly related to the fact that this is a behavior that we should engage in, from a natural history perspective. We should garden and we should engage with the natural world because these things are part of who we are as a species. We are not primates designed to hunch over a keyboard as I am presently doing but primates who evolved in a natural world and used our intelligence to remove some of the uncertainty from procuring proper nutrition.
But I digress. One variety of vegetables we are going to try to grow this year is Brussels sprouts (and I just learned that it is Brussels sprouts and not Brussel sprouts). They are actually a variety of
PTC played a major role in the development of our understanding of the biochemistry and genetics of bitter taste detection. Ability in all animals to taste bitterness has evolved as a way to avoid toxic compounds. It is the only one of the five tastes (yes, five) that is activated by more than one family of molecules. It was little understood just how this worked until the 1930s when a scientist was experimenting on PTC and accidentally blew some of the substance into the air. His colleague began to complain of a bitter taste in his throat that the lead researcher could not detect. This lead to a line of research that now accounts for the genetic difference between humans who can and cannot taste this bitter molecule.
It is still somewhat unclear why some can and some cannot taste PTC. It is often found in toxic plants and PTC itself is toxic in very high quantities. We should, at least in theory, have all developed an aversion to the molecule as it is a sign of toxicity. Perhaps the molecule’s presence in vegetables we’ve been eating since antiquity accounts for some of our inability to taste PTC (or as I like to think of it, an ability not to taste PTC). What plants (either edible or not) are you looking forward to seeing in your garden this year?
Parington, Charles Frederick (1835) British cyclopaedia of natural history. Accessed via Google Books