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Toxic to Tasty: The Evolution of Food

Course Title:  Toxic to Tasty: The Evolution of Food 

Course Description:

Pumpkin pie is a tasty treat, but did you know that 5000 years ago having just a small bite of a pumpkin would have made you vomit? What if the banana you peeled was full of huge seeds? Did you know that recent research shows that eggplants can help get rid of freckles and skin cancer? In this class, students will investigate the domestication history, chemistry, and genetics of over a dozen economically important crops ranging from apples to yucca. Students will focus on finding mutations at the genetic level that may be responsible for changes in a plant’s appearance, flavor, or how it is used by people, as well as learning about biosynthetic pathways, and how genes affect plant chemistry. Working in teams, students will conduct two short research projects that will enable them to answer their own questions about the history of food and use their findings to make important suggestions to society about the current threats to food crop diversity, as well as both the organic and genetically-modified food movement.

Course Goals:  

You will become fluent in many aspects of foundational molecular biology. You will understand the pathway from DNA sequence to the trait it codes for. You will also become aware of what threatens the diversity and availability of various food crops. You will develop an arsenal of knowledge on several important food crop histories and current economic, cultural, and survival issues that surround them.

This course is designed to instantly put students in scientist’s shoes by conducting an in-depth study of a crop in teams. Beginning with your own questions about food, you can conduct research in the lab and on computer databases to figure out the most probable answer. Many students are interested in science and have fun actively conducting experiments and research, but are not attracted to traditional science classes because of the heavy amounts of lecture, memorization, and tests. While there are several quizzes in class, this course aims to reach out to students who want to learn science by doing science. In many ways, this course is designed to help students feel what it is like to be a scientist, so they can decide if they want to pursue this field in college.

The course aims to strengthen scientific writing and presentation skills. Students participate in critiquing each others research through these forms of presenting research. An additional aim is to cultivate independent thinking and inquiry about the world- especially regarding natural and artificial selection for certain food qualities.

Students will be able to:


  • Understand the process of crop domestication. Form hypotheses about what desirable qualities were selected for in crops by humans over thousands of years.

  • Know the history and domestication-attributes for 7 major crops.

  • Be familiar with antioxidant-related or flavor-related biosynthetic pathways.

  • Extract DNA/RNA, and interpret DNA data by making alignments and phylogenies. Be able to correctly envision what is happening in these procedures at the molecular level.

  • Be well-versed in knowledge of the current threats to crop biodiversity, and know how they can play an active role in preserving diversity should they want to.

  • Be aware of central issues around food access in communities, and the environmental psychology of food culture, food business, and access.



  • Be able to write a scientific paper, be able to deliver a research presentation..
  • Use web-tools to investigate genes and biosynthetic pathways.

  • Conduct a bioassay and interpret results.

  • Learn how to organize and maintain a lab notebook.

  • Be able to design experiments that are well-suited to the research question.

  • Be able to take succinct notes from lectures. Be confident to share their opinions during discussions.



Course Outline:

Unit 1: Forces that drive evolution (3 sessions; each session is 90 minutes)

     1. Introduction and bean toss game

     2. Centers of origin of food crops

     3. Domestication syndrome

Unit 2: Functions of foods (8 sessions)

     4. Chili peppers and garlic

    5.  Kalustyans field trip

    6. Environmental psychology of food and the paradigm shifts of dynamic plant knowledge and innovation

Unit 3: Evolution research project (3 sessions)   

   7. DNA barcoding for determining imposter species

   8. Re-evolving a crop

   9. Re-evolving a crop, independent study

  10. How is chili spiciness made? Solve the genetic pathway.

Unit 4: Environmental psychology (4 sessions)

  11. Food Inc. Film vieweing and critique.

  12. TBA

  13. TBA

 14. TBA

Unit 5: Exit project: A case study of a crop (2 sessions)