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January 23rd, 2019 / Nova

At the World Vegetable Center, experts are looking to the wild relatives of domesticated crops—like eggplant—to save the human diet from climate change.

At the World Vegetable Center, experts are studying a wide variety of eggplant relatives for their hardiness and ability to produce appealing, edible fruits—but it isn’t typical, business-as-usual breeding. Rather, plant breeders are on a mission to save the human diet from climate change.

All of the fruits and vegetables available in markets and grocery stores today are products of domestication. Their ancestors were not-so-edible organisms like the little tree Rakha tends. But centuries ago, humans began to take the biggest and tastiest wild plants and breed them together. They repeated this over and over, weaving together the genes that made a juicier fruit or a fatter wheat kernel so that many generations down the line, modern plants are now quite different.

These domesticated plants, despite their advantages, have some significant weaknesses. They’re not as sturdy as many of their wild relatives when it comes to resisting diseases, droughts, and other challenges. When a problem arises, they do not have the genetic diversity that allows wild populations to ride it out—all the individuals are so similar that what kills one, kills them all. And crops are already facing a serious challenge that’s bound to get worse: climate change.

As temperatures warm and pests shift their territories around the planet, large swaths of the human diet are at risk of crumbling under the onslaught of disease, insects, saltier water, and unbearable heat. Read more