Artificial vs Natural Watermelon & Sweetcorn

Inspired by the recent Peach infographic, I set out to find the least natural fruit in existence, and decided it was probably the modern watermelon. Take a look below: which one would you rather eat?

Artificial vs Natural Watermelon
jameskennedymonash.wordpress.com

The watermelon, delicious as it is, has increased from 50 mm to 660 mm in diameter, which represents a 1680-fold increase in volume. While ancient “wild watermelons” weighed no more than 80 grams, modern watermelons can range from 2 kg to 8 kg in the supermarket, while the Guiness World Record for the heaviest watermelon recorded exceeded 121 kilograms in the year 2000. Thousands of years of human-induced evolution have worked miracles on these fruits. Let’s not forget that they’re completely artificial.

The most famous example of artificial selection is of course the selective breeding of the feeble teosinte plant into juicy, delicious, North American sweetcorn.

artificial natural corn james kennedy monash science chemistry
jameskennedymonash.wordpress.com

In 9000 years, sweetcorn has become 1000 times larger, 3.5 times sweeter, much easier to peel and much easier to grow than its wild ancestor. It no longer resembles the original teosinte plant at all. Around half of this artificial selection happened since the fifteenth century, when European settlers placed new selection pressures on the crop to suit their exotic taste buds.

That’s all for now… More exciting infographics coming soon. Enjoy!😉

129 thoughts on “Artificial vs Natural Watermelon & Sweetcorn

      1. I see your point, at least somewhat, particularly where laboratory work is involved. It’s the word and concept of articifial that bothers me, as I find that it implies, to me, that the plant did not exist but was/is the sole creation of a lab. This need not be negative (we will save GMO for a much much much later discussion). Domestication, whether of plants or animals, does change these from their wild state (where they might be fully useless to humans and animals alike) to something “manageable”. Same goes, to some extent, for horticulture. Domestication might create a wider genetic diversity (again, no discussion of GMO implied), or adapt it. Something has been done to create modern day melons (etc). Whether natural selection is involved or is the sole creation of cross-pollination, hybridisation, might be up for discussion.

        Many plants, such as orchids, are “manufactured” by creating hybrids through cross-pollination. It is undoubtedly a way to maintain a species where the available habitats are dwindling. But then,seed banks and active conservation is also required.

        Below is a well-written wikipedia-articles on domestication
        http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Domestication#Plants

        And an article from Kew on wild crop plants.
        http://www.kew.org/science-conservation/environment/crop-wild-relatives

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      2. The term “artificial” is inaccurate. As the other commenter suggested, “domesticated” is a better descriptor, as is modified.

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      3. The problem with saying it is both, is that words lose their meaning and usefulness. The same way it can be ‘both’ domesticated and artificial, it could be “natural”. There is a large contribution of nature into ‘contemporary’ fruits and vegetables. We humans are still unable of producing a 100% ‘de novo’ fruit, vegetable or whatever in the lab. It would be nice if you could distinguish the relative contribution of, let’s say, Indigenous peoples selection (up to 1400’s), and modern science and technology selection (during the last 50 years).

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      4. I’m sad I’m a year too late for this article, and I respect what you think, but from a scientific standpoint, “artificial” is just not a correct term. You don’t call a greyhound an “artificial dog” even though it is a creation of human gene manipulation, just like a lot of our produce is. “Ancient vs. modern” would be more appropriate in a case like this.

        Fascinating article though, I have always known that corn thousands of years ago was quite a bit different than it is today, but I had no idea the watermelon has had a lot of human influence in its timeline!

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    1. 1000 times in volume, not diameter. It’s like having a 1x1x1 cube and increase the side 2-fold. 2x2x2 cube has 2*2*2=2³=8 times the volume of 1*1*1=1 cube. So with 10 times larger diameter, you get 10³ = 1000 times larger volume.

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      1. Misread, nevermind. It’s the length of maize, that definitely doesn’t compute, nor does 67 fold increase from 8 to ~200.

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      2. thank you for clarifying, you may want to make that clearer in the graphic, now that you have caught the eye of the media – most have not had chemistry, and their math classes are far behind them.

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  1. This doesn’t even take into account that corn couldn’t be eaten off the cob until recently. Even 9,000 years of hybridization still meant you had to grind it and soak it in lime before using the meal for some product. Today’s produce is clearly larger and sweeter than ever, but we truly have no idea what the long-term impact on human health will be of such massive changes in such relatively shorter (evolutionarily speaking) time frames.

    I suppose it is probably some kind of linguistic ploy to refer to these as artificial (perhaps trying to point out that “artificial” is not always bad?), but it’s not terribly accurate. “Artificial” carries a connotation of being made from scratch in a lab. I would simply say “natural” versus “hybridized.”

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    1. I think everyone who is freaking out over the word “artificial” in the term “artificial selection” need to calm down. Artificial selection isn’t a new term that tries to force a good connotation on to the word “artificial”. The term “artificial selection” was coined by Charles Darwin, and in terms of the study of genetics is as old as dirt. There’s no Illuminati agenda here trying to force everyone to accept GMO’s and other “non-organic” things. (The using the term “organic” for foods is pretty ridiculous, in my honest opinion.)

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    2. Actually, it wasn’t “lime” the corn was soaked in. It was LYE. Lye is still used to make a southern food, Hominy. Hominy is corn soaked in Lye. Lye was very common and widely used for hundreds of years. It was used for washing clothes and human bodies. Lye is extremely alkali, which means it is very corrosive, i.e., very dangerous.

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      1. In traditional foodways, to make what is known as hominy in N.America , field corn (maize) grain is dried, then treated by soaking and cooking the mature corn in a dilute solution of lye, OR slaked lime (calcium hydroxide) OR wood ash, a process termed nixtamalization. It is the same process traditionally used by Native Americans to prepare field corn, and is still most of the process used to make masa harina (it is a ground product, usually dried) for tortillas (among other things) in many present Hispanic cuisines

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    3. The author seems to have confounded field corn with sweet corn (US terms, don’t know if they apply outside N. America) in his descriptions. Sweet corn is essentially eaten fresh with minimal preparation as a vegetable, while field corn is a fully matured dried product, that by its very nature is a food that requires substantial further processing to be edible by humans. It is unlikely that even the most primitive corn varieties were even eaten fresh like sweet corn is today

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  2. In your corn infographic you say for Natural Corn 7000 B.C. Only available in Central America but your graphic (and history) show that corn was available in Mexico which is in North America.

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  3. Very interesting. This is great to show all those trendy people that a proper palaeolithic diet can’t include corn salads and muesli with dried peaches.

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  4. Maybe there is a struggle in nature between natural selection and selection done by other organisms (i.e. “artificial selection”) with the selection done by other organisms being at the higher level and following fundamentally different rules than “natural selection”. These rules would be those along the lines of concepts found in the Christian Gospel: “Every tree that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire.”

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  5. Re: artificial selection = artificial. I wonder if the fungi that the leafcutter ants propagate have been “selected” for certain traits. Apparently the particular fungal species involved could not survive without ants to cultivate them. So is that an artificial species or variety, or do humans have to be involved for a food product to be considered artificial?

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  6. Cool graphics. However, where are the sources for the info? How do we know that the natural (could we also say “wild type”?) watermelon is bitter, causes inflammation, there are only 6 varieties, and so on? Just want to be able to answer those questions should I happen to share this and be asked. 🙂

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  7. how did you figure it out about 7000 B.C for the corn ?
    and for the watermelon ?
    What kind of sources do you have, have you a link or scientific article?

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  8. These are great for my students to visualizes the effects of selective breeding. I would also include the Potato in this group of selective breeding, as to most people outside of Latin American don’t realize the vast verities of potatoes that exist.
    But more important should be the idea that we should maintain a store of genetically wild type plants, so that we and the plants can adapt the ever changing environmental pressures. Transgenic manipulation may not solve all future issues of adaptation to climatic changes, but natural selection can find a way.

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  9. Reblogged this on Honest Abe's Blog and commented:
    GMOs, genetically modified organisms. If you spell it in reverse it becomes OMG, like the scare it creates when people talk about it on the news. But if I tell you watermelon, peaches, corn, sweet potatoes and other fresh produces are GMOs, even the “all-natural organics”. For 10’000 years now without the fear and the buzz that modern GMOs have. This blog page is with very nice infographics explain to you the real “all-natural organic” that is indeed very far from what we know and what we have designed by random selection and cherry-picking traits.
    Are we still treating diseases by making a random infusion of medicinal plants? Hell no, we have extracted and purified the active ingredients, made them more potent and also tested their efficacy and safety.
    With GMOs, we are just improving our technique from random shotgun to surgical strike to achieve our goals: increase yields to make it more affordable, make food with added vitamins (Golden Rice to fight blindess due to Vitamin A deficiency) and foremost reduce the use of pesticides (Bt eggplant).

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  10. James: How much transformation for these plants has taken place post-industrialisation? Just curious as to how much the scientific method has accelerated change or did the bulk of change take place before the industrial revolution and the application of modern selective breeding techniques? Would be good to see one of the graphics with three stages: Prehuman intervention, pre-modern era, modern era.

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  11. I applaud your efforts with this. It seems to me that your work is designed to get people to rethink their reaction to human changes in the environment we find ourselves in. Old changes are unrecognized, and thus become natural, while new changes are the violations of the natural order. The shorthand of natural as good and artificial as bad does not serve a species as creative and destructive as ours.

    On a more basic level, most comments on this thread (all of which you handle with grace) seem not to wish to engage you in your exercise in definition. Here are some definitions of artificial that are completely consistent with your work here. “Made or produced by human beings rather than occurring naturally,” “not happening or existing naturally.” Both of these draw a pretty clear line- if it doesn’t occur in nature, but rather exists due to human effort, it is artificial. If this cannot be said of corn or watermelon, then what can this be said of?

    Of course, adding a gene from a tobacco mosaic virus to soybeans is an important change, but the line into human-made from nature-made has been crossed well before Monsanto was around. Thank you again for your work.

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  12. Great post, I think it is a great way to teach and reach more people! just a quick comment for the corn pick, Mexico is not Central America, is actually part of North America.
    Cheers

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  13. Mr. Kennedy, Long ago I taught science to middle-schoolers. Now I teach to university students in Virginia. Your graphics are excellent. I’ll be using (with attribution) your pics when I teach next. I hope you can laugh at the nattering nabobs of negativism who have commented on your efforts.

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