Stressing out your plants can make them more delicious, and we’re going to measure it.
In the evolutionary history of plants, shifts in their environment led to shifts in chemistry—a molecular production ramp-up of secondary metabolites to serve specific roles for the plant. When algae evolved into land plans, they co-evolved molecules to protect themselves from the new stresses of UV light and desiccation. When herbivorous insects came along, plants evolved small molecules to deter or poison them. Fortunately for us humans, many of these stress-related plant molecules have a totally different bio-activity for us: flavors!
A lot of the metabolism of plants is “baked-in” by their genes (and one problem with many modern industrial food plants is that they’ve had flavor and nutrition literally bred out of them in the pursuit of ever-greater yield and uniformity). But for any set genome, there’s a kaleidoscope of phenomic possibilities that can be expressed, many of them in response to environment. This is part of the reason why, for example, pinot noir from Napa tastes different from pinot noir from Burgundy.
We’re going to look at basil as a (tasty) model organism. Like many herbs, it produces a lot of flavor molecules, and a lot of these are environment- and stress-related. We’ve built some isolated rooms inside the OpenAG Food Server at the MIT Media Lab (there are observation windows if you’re around and want to peek in) and we’re going to change things for the basil plants, then measure changes in their composition of volatile molecules using GC-MS. We’re looking at UV light, which has been shown to enhance the production of the trichomes on basil leaves that hold volatiles; drought stress, which has been shown to increase volatile production overall; root and soil microbes, which can do things like raise the expression of eugenol, a clove-smelling molecule, by an order of magnitude (for 10X clove basil); and treatment with a substance called chitosan, which is chemically similar to the chitin found in the exoskeletons of insects, and increases volatile production by tricking the basil into believing that it’s the target of an insect attack.
What’s going to work the best? Which basil will be the most delicious? Can we create a climate recipe that mimics the growing conditions in Genoa, or makes a totally postmodern basil? Where can we go from basil? It’s all open source all the time at Open Ag, so stay tuned!