DNA Detectives

DNA: it's the genetic information that makes plants and animals what we are. Most of the time when you hear about it in the context of food, it's to do with breeding. But in this short episode, we bring you two DNA detective stories that show how genetic analysis can rewrite the history of agriculture and fight food fraud—at least some of the time.

Listen now to hear how preserved DNA from an underwater site off the coast of Britain is helping paint a picture of how hunter gatherers in Northern Europe might first have experienced the wonders of agriculture, by trading kernels of exotic, domesticated Near Eastern wheat over long distances. We'll also explore DNA's role in some controversial accusations of food fraud and introduce you to the mysterious publication that defines the official standards of identity for food ingredients. And, finally, we squeeze in a short trip to Dublin's Science Gallery, to talk to chef Clare Anne O'Keefe about a dish that was entirely inspired by Gastropod!

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TRANSCRIPT The Microbe Revolution

This is a transcript of the Gastropod episode, The Microbe Revolution, first released on Nov. 11, 2014. It is provided as a courtesy and may contain errors.

NICOLA TWILLEY: Hello and welcome to Gastropod! I’m Nicola Twilley—

CYNTHIA GRABER: And I’m Cynthia Graber. And as usual, we’re here to share fascinating tales about the science and history of food. This week, we’re going to spend a lot of time talking about a vegetable called a cassava.

TWILLEY: You may not have heard of it—but according to Bill Gates, it is the world’s most interesting vegetable. He also called it the stud of the vegetable world.

GRABER: The stud?

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TRANSCRIPT Phage Against The Machine

This is a transcript of the Gastropod episode, Phage Against the Machine, first released on March 16, 2021. It is provided as a courtesy and may contain errors.

SANDRO SULAKVELIDZE: My boss at a time, he was walking around in a very sad mood one day and I asked him what was going on. And apparently, he was treating a patient who just underwent a very sophisticated surgical procedure. I think it was an organ transplantation. 

CYNTHIA GRABER: The surgery itself had gone well. But the patient developed an infection. And the antibiotics the doctor was using just weren’t working. The patient was dying.

SULAKVELIDZE: And I asked without thinking twice, you know, how come the bacteriophages didn’t handle it, because I knew bacteriophages could kill bacteria that could not be killed with antibiotics. And at that point Glenn looked at me, you know, with that look that I realized that, you know, this is the first time he heard about this type of applications of bacteriophages.

NICOLA TWILLEY: Glenn is probably not alone here. I hadn’t even heard of what some people call bacteriophages, or phages as they’re usually called in the U.S.—I had literally no idea what they even were until just a few years ago. It’s entirely possible that this is the very first time you’ve heard of them. 

GRABER: But we are going to be spending quite a bit of time with these tiny, potentially life-saving creatures today. Don’t worry, you are in fact listening to Gastropod, the podcast that looks at food through the lens of science and history, and this story is indeed about food, I promise—I’m Cynthia Graber—

TWILLEY: And I’m Nicola Twilley. And our phage guide this episode is Alexander Sulakvelidze.
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TRANSCRIPT Eat This, Not That: The Surprising Science of Personalized Nutrition

This is a transcript of the Gastropod episode, Eat This, Not That: The Surprising Science of Personalized Nutrition, first released on June 10, 2019. It is provided as a courtesy and may contain errors.

RESEARCHER: Five, four, three, two, one. Enjoy!

CYNTHIA GRABER: Wow, “enjoy” was a little bit of an exaggeration. LAUGHTER

NICOLA TWILLEY: They’re even bluer inside! Look at that color. That’s not found in nature, I’m gonna say.

GRABER: Ok, it’s oily and sweet, is my response.

TWILLEY: It’s left a little blue oil slick on the plate, which is charming.

GRABER: Yes, we ate muffins the color of a Smurf, just for you, dear listeners. And for science.

TWILLEY: It wasn’t a muffin, it wasn’t a meal, it was a metabolic challenge. And our goal was to find out how our bodies—mine, and yours, Cynthia—responded differently to that challenge. How we handled those bright blue muffins.

GRABER: We of course are Gastropod, the podcast that looks at food through the lens of science and history, I’m Cynthia Graber—

TWILLEY: And I’m Nicola Twilley. And this episode, we are doing an experiment. Alongside several hundred other people.

TIM SPECTOR: it’s the world’s largest nutrition study of its of its kind about personalized nutrition.
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TRANSCRIPT Say Cheese!

This is a transcript of the Gastropod episode, Say Cheese!, first released on March 23, 2015. It is provided as a courtesy and may contain errors.

HEATHER PAXSON: The very first question we were to address was how is cheese made, which I think the postdocs who put together the questions for us thought this was a straightforward question to begin with, but we went round and round, because it turns out you can’t explain how cheese is made without knowing what you mean by cheese.

CYNTHIA GRABER: You’re listening to Gastropod.

NICOLA TWILLEY: The podcast where we wrestle with the really big questions. Like what is cheese anyway?
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TRANSCRIPT The Most Dangerous Fruit in America

This is a transcript of the Gastropod episode, The Most Dangerous Fruit in America, first released on August 3, 2020. It is provided as a courtesy and may contain errors.

PERRY COMO: It’s watermelon weather / That summer kind of weather / When people get together and sing.

GRABER: We might not all be getting together, but I’m still happy to eat watermelon and sing—about watermelons.

TWILLEY: Yeah but I’m sorry Cynthia, are you a hundred and three? Perry Como? What about some Harry Styles!

HARRY STYLES: Watermelon sugar high / Watermelon sugar high / Watermelon sugar high / Watermelon sugar

GRABER: Singing with a watermelon, frolicking on the beach with a watermelon, it’s all good.

TWILLEY: So hey listeners, guess what this episode is about?
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The Most Dangerous Fruit in America

It's the epitome of summertime: there’s nothing like a cold, juicy slice of red watermelon on a swelteringly hot day. But, once upon a time, watermelons were neither red nor sweet—the wild watermelon has white flesh and a bitter taste. This episode, we scour Egyptian tombs, decaying DNA, and ancient literature in search of watermelon's origins. The quest for tasty watermelon continues into modern times, with the rediscovery of a lost (and legendarily sweet) varietal in South Carolina—and the Nigerian musical secret that might help you pick a ripe one. But the fruit's history has often been the opposite of sweet: watermelons have featured in some of the most ubiquitous anti-Black imagery in U.S. history. So how did the watermelon become the most dangerous—and racist—fruit in America?

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TRANSCRIPT Potatoes in Space!

This is a transcript of the Gastropod episode, Potatoes in Space, first released on April 23, 2019. It is provided as a courtesy and may contain errors.

WIEGER WAMELINK: There’s quite some difference. Especially with the moon. The moon soil is very coarse. It’s very sharp. And that’s one of the very important differences not only for the plants but also for the worms. Because they eat soil and if you eat soil and it’s sharp, it’s the same as if we would eat broken glass.

NICOLA TWILLEY: Oh man, those poor little wormies! But why are we feeding worms moon soil exactly?

CYNTHIA GRABER: How do scientists even get soil from the moon in the first place? Sure, we need to study it if we’re ever going to grow food in outer space, but where does this crushed moon rock come from?
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TRANSCRIPT Move Over Gin, We’ve Got Tonic Fever

This is a transcript of the Gastropod episode, Move Over Gin, We’ve Got Tonic Fever, first released on February 11, 2020. It is provided as a courtesy and may contain errors.

KIM WALKER: But you can try a little bit. It’s a lovely bright orange color, actually. You can’t really see it—but you see on here? Beautiful bright orange.

NICOLA TWILLEY: Yeah, looks like chili oil.

WALKER: Yeah, in a way, yes. Would you like to try some?

TWILLEY: Oh, that’s bitter. Mmm. It’s like, dried out the inside of my mouth where it landed.

CYNTHIA GRABER: Nicky, that doesn’t sound pleasant at all. What are you tasting?
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TRANSCRIPT To Fight Climate Change, Bank on Soil

This is a transcript of the Gastropod episode, To Fight Climate Change, Bank on Soil, first released on February 25. It is provided as a courtesy and may contain errors.

CHANT NEWSREEL: Stop denying the earth is dying! Stop denying the earth is dying!

ACTIVIST 1 NEWSREEL: We stand united. Youth across the world and across the country are coming together.

ACTIVIST 2 NEWSREEL: The climate crisis should not have to be put on my generation’s shoulders to fight.
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