July 14 (UPI) -- A biologist and art historian say art depicting fruits and vegetables can help trace their evolution, and are seeking more pieces to help future studies on the development of plant-based foods.
Rare, well preserved samples can help biologists decode genomes of ancient crops, but there are significant gaps in the evolutionary timelines of modern fruits, vegetables, legumes, grains, nuts and seeds, the researchers said in a study published Tuesday in the journal Trends in Plant Science.
In the study, researchers say they could add to the use of genome research by examining historical art depicting plant-based food sources as part of fleshing out the evolutionary history of the foods.
"It's a bit of an out-of-control hobby for me," said Ive De Smet, a plant biologist at the VIB-UGent Center for Plant Systems Biology in Belgium. "We may have some of the genetic code for certain ancient plants, but often not well-preserved samples, so looking at art can help put these species on a time map and track down their evolution."
De Smet and his lifelong friend David Vergauwen, an art history lecturer at Amarant in Belgium, are calling on museum goers and art aficionados to help them find paintings with useful historic depictions.
The call follows the two researchers realizing they could help each other fill gaps in the evolutionary timelines of plant-based foods after spotting art of a 17th century fruit together.
"I'm a biologist by training, and he's an art historian by training so we come from two totally different worlds," De Smet said. "During a trip a couple of years ago, we were standing in front of a painting and there was a piece of fruit that we didn't immediately recognize.
"He asked me what I thought it was and I said I didn't really know, and that maybe it was a bad painter," De Smet said. "But he told me this was actually one of the best painters from the 17th century. So, if that's how the fruit was depicted, that's how it should look."
De Smet later found out that when scientists studied ancient depictions of Egyptian watermelons, they saw the modern light and green stripes the fruit is known for.
By extracting DNA from a watermelon leaf preserved in an Egyptian tomb, they were able to see that the fruit was domesticated more than 4,000 years ago.
The researchers plan to build a database of art depicting fruits and vegetables, asking people to send in pictures of art they find with plant-based food, in addition to anything they find in visits to museums or through other research.
The hope, they said, is to avoid missing parts of private art collections or other collections in far-off places.
"Woodland strawberries are very often depicted at the feet of the Virgin Mary," De Smet said, but that generally isn't mentioned in the title of a painting. This, he said, is typical of painting titles -- and it is why they need people to help them inspect other paintings around the world.
"You really have to go to each and every one of these paintings and look at the feet to see if there's a small depiction of a woodland strawberry," De Smet said.