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Taste of Tech: Teasing out the Sugar in the Genes

What happens when you combine the newly-sequenced cacao genome with breathable chocolate? Fresh Taste of Tech speculations from Gearfuse.

This Taste of Tech post is the first in a series exploring the science and technology of food featuring guest contributions by Matthew Battles. Battles is editor of Gearfuse, a blog about the confluence of science, culture, and technology, where you can read about hacked knitting machines, emerging biomimetic technology, and the extradition chic of Julian Assange, among other things.



In a reflection of the profound importance of chocolate as a commodity, rival teams of researchers drawn from government, the academy, and the candy industry have cracked the cocoa code—specifically, they've sequenced the genomes of two important cacao bean cultivars.

As reported at Nature News and elsewhere, a French team with support from chocolate giant Hershey has achieved the first peer-reviewed publication of a cacao sequence for the Criollo cultivar, a hard-to-grow heirloom varietal used in expensive chocolates; another team backed by Hershey's rival, Mars, meanwhile has published a preliminary sequencing of a popularly-farmed Forastero hybrid.

Do we have to worry about patented chocolate genomes? It's unlikely—in fact the collaborative sequencing initiatives, both of which receive significant governmental support, were set up precisely to forestall patent filings by bringing these genomes into the public record—perhaps a harbinger of newfound corporate respect for the public commons.

In another culinary-genetic coup, researchers have sequenced the genome of the wild strawberry, Fragaria vesca. While of relatively little culinary importance, genes of the wild strain may offer ways to bolster disease resistance and vigor in its cultivated cousins.

It's enough to get mouths watering not only for chocolate-dipped strawberries, but for fresh science that extends beyond the bounds of the culinary. The flavenoid-rich, biochemically complex Theobroma cacao in particular may yet yield novel compounds whose impact reaches beyond the dessert tray.

I'm reminded of Le Whif, the "breathable chocolate" developed by Harvard's David Edwards (which GOOD Food's Peter Smith wrote about earlier today); key aspects of the delivery technology emerged from Edwards' work on systems for administering breathable insulin and getting vaccines to lung tissue. Le Whif emerged from the cross-pollinating foment of Edwards' atelier-like "artscience" development process, in which multi-disciplinary teams of scientists and creatives play with one another's ideas, regularly staging "exhibitions" in place of seminars or conferences. With the cacao genomic data now publicly available, it's fun to play around with the kind of far-out notions that could one day be realized. What if we could genetically implant glands for chocolate and other flavors, with their secretion under conscious control? The same sort of glandular hacks could provide needed drugs or other forms of biochemical support as well.

From the cacao and strawberry genomes to designer glands offering savory and sweet secretions—well, I said it was a far-out notion, more reminiscent of the Culture novels of Iain M. Banks than anything likely to come out of a laboratory in our lifetimes. But it's the kind of thing that might arise from labs that are less like labs and more like kitchens.

Image: Theobroma cacao, from Flora de Filipinas, 1880-83

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via Gage Skidmore / Flickr

If you are totally ready to move on from Donald Trump, you're not alone. According to a report last April from the Wason Center National Survey of 2020 Voters, "President Trump will be the least popular president to run for reelection in the history of polling."

Yes, you read that right, "history of polling."

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Politics
via Around the NFL / Twitter

After three years on the sidelines, Colin Kapernick will be working out for multiple NFL teams on Saturday, November 16 at the Atlanta Falcons facility.

The former 49er quarterback who inflamed the culture wars by peacefully protesting against social injustice during the national anthem made the announcement on Twitter Tuesday.

Kaepernick is scheduled for a 15-minute on-field workout and an interview that will be recorded and sent to all 32 teams. The Miami Dolphins, Dallas Cowboys, and Detroit Lions are expected to have representatives in attendance.

RELATED: Joe Namath Says Colin Kaepernick And Eric Reid Should Be Playing In The NFL

"We like our quarterback situation right now," Miami head coach, Brian Flores said. "We're going to do our due diligence."

NFL Insider Steve Wyche believes that the workout is the NFL's response to multiple teams inquiring about the 32-year-old quarterback. A league-wide workout would help to mitigate any potential political backlash that any one team may face for making an overture to the controversial figure.

Kapernick is an unrestricted free agent (UFA) so any team could have reached out to him. But it's believed that the interested teams are considering him for next season.

RELATED: Video of an Oakland train employee saving a man's life is so insane, it looks like CGI

Earlier this year, Kaepernick and Carolina Panthers safety Eric Reid reached a financial settlement with the league in a joint collusion complaint. The players alleged that the league conspired to keep them out after they began kneeling during the national anthem in 2016.

Before the 2019 season, Kaepernick posted a video of himself working out on twitter to show he was in great physical condition and ready to play.

Kaepnick took the 49ers to the Super Bowl in 2012 and the NFC Championship game in 2013.

He has the 23rd-highest career passer rating in NFL history, the second-best interception rate, and the ninth-most rushing yards per game of any quarterback ever. In 2016, his career to a sharp dive and he won only of 11 games as a starter.

Culture

In the category of "claims to fame nobody wants," the United States can now add "exporter of white supremacist ideology" to its repertoire. Super.

Russell Travers, acting director of the National Counterterrorism Center, made this claim in a briefing at The Washington Institute in Washington, D.C. "For almost two decades, the United States has pointed abroad at countries who are exporters of extreme Islamist ideology," Travers said. "We are now being seen as the exporter of white supremacist ideology. That's a reality with which we are going to have to deal."

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Between Alexa, Siri, and Google, artificial intelligence is quickly changing us and the way we live. We no longer have to get up to turn on the lights or set the thermostat, we can find the fastest route to work with a click, and, most importantly, tag our friends in pictures. But interacting with the world isn't the only thing AI is making easier – now we can use it save the world, too.

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