Thank the Hungry Caterpillar for Wasabi, Mustard and other tangy flavors! Plant defense mechanisms

It’s hard to imagine a Japanese cuisine without wasabi, and an American burger without mustard. But these flavors are part of our palate all thanks to the hunger caterpillar and all the other predators who attack plants.

Around 90 million years ago when plants like wasabi, horseradish, mustard, cabbages and kale figured out a way to repel hungry caterpillars by producing pungent-tasting chemicals called ‘glucosinolates’.

A study, published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences last week, discovered that evolutionary combat when the snacking critters intelligently developed upgraded defences, against the glucosinolates, each time the plant produced a stronger version of the toxin.

Not just the fiery wasabi, or the tangy mustard, the flavor of cauliflower and other vegetables has also developed due the survival battle between plants and animals.

Chris Pires, a biologist at the University of Missouri and one of the lead authors of the study asserted,” Why do you think plants have spices or any flavour at all? It’s not for us. They have a function. All these flavours are evolution”.

Pires and his colleagues studied the evolutionary family trees of these plant species called ‘Brassicales’ and concluded that every time the plants evolved a new, stronger type of glucosinolate, their family tree would branch into more complexly flavoured species.

Pires put emphasis on possibility of harnessing the ability of the Brassicales to develop pest-resistant crops, as these species can escalate their defences by altering their genes.


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