Deep history of coconuts decoded

A chef wearing avocado sunscreen holds a sweet nui vai coconut. The photo was taken in the Masoala Peninsula of Madagascar by plant biologist Bee Gunn while she was collecting coconut leaf tissue for DNA analysis.The DNA of the Madagascar coconuts turned out to be particularly interesting, preserving, as it did, news of the arrival of ancient Austronesians at the island off Africa. Image courtesy Bee Gunn/National Geographic Society.

By Diana Lutz
Seed Daily

The coconut (the fruit of the palm Cocos nucifera) is the Swiss Army knife of the plant kingdom; in one neat package it provides a high-calorie food, potable water, fiber that can be spun into rope, and a hard shell that can be turned into charcoal. What’s more, until it is needed for some other purpose it serves as a handy flotation device.

No wonder people from ancient Austronesians to Captain Bligh pitched a few coconuts aboard before setting sail. (The mutiny of the Bounty is supposed to have been triggered by Bligh’s harsh punishment of the theft of coconuts from the ship’s store.)

So extensively is the history of the coconut interwoven with the history of people traveling that Kenneth Olsen, a plant evolutionary biologist, didn’t expect to find much geographical structure to coconut genetics when he and his colleagues set out to examine the DNA of more than 1300 coconuts from all over the world.

“I thought it would be mostly a mish-mash,” he says, thoroughly homogenized by humans schlepping coconuts with them on their travels.

He was in for a surprise. It turned out that there are two clearly differentiated populations of coconuts, a finding that strongly suggests the coconut was brought under cultivation in two separate locations, one in the Pacific basin and the other in the Indian Ocean basin. What’s more, coconut genetics also preserve a record of prehistoric trade routes and of the colonization of the Americas.

The discoveries of the team, which included Bee Gunn, now of the Australian National University in Australia, and Luc Baudouin of the Centre International de Recherches en Agronomie pour le Developpement (CIRAD) in Montpellier, France, as well as Olsen, associate professor of biology at Washington University in St. Louis, are described in the June 23 online issue of the journal PLoS One.

Read more at Seed Daily

6 responses to “Deep history of coconuts decoded

  1. I absolutely love coconuts, especially the green “jelly” variety. I thought they originated in West Africa and the Caribbean. To eat them, with a machete — I have a small one — or with the help of an expert, cut open the top, drink it by tipping the coconut towards your mouth, and gently guzzle. If you prefer, yes, you can use a straw or pour the coconut water into a glass. Then, with a machete, or have an expert help you, cut off a coconut shell “spoon,” cut the coconut into either halves or thirds, and scoop the delicious jelly. Eat!!!! This is both delicious and nutritious. Used with organic raw cacao nibs and a few other ingredients, you can make absolutely yummy healthful desserts. I do. Thanks for this article.

  2. it’s meat, not jelly…lol

  3. Absolutely adore coconuts, wherever they came from! Can’t get enough of coconut meat….love the juice fresh from the nut, love the oil…it is the BEST!

  4. Notice where one of the scientists works. In Missouri, St. Louis, where Monsanto is. Notice they are studying the DNA of the coconut, the genes. This is going to end up being about genetic engineering to own coconuts.

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