A Once Deadly Ice Cream Topping…

27 01 2011

The almond enjoyed today atop ice cream sundaes and amidst trail mix is a far cry from its bitter, fatal roots. The two billion almond industry (I contribute to the Almond Joy sector) of today is made possible by a genetic variation that made domestication of almonds possible. Before domestication, eating only a few dozen of the nuts would be lethal…

The lethal effect is due to the presence of glucoside amygdalin which becomes deadly prussic acid  if the nut is crushed or chewed. And the by-product of prussic acid…. cyanide! Due to the genetic variation the domesticated almond is sweet, instead of bitter, and lacks the ability to produce to the deadly prussic acid. Who knew almond  trees had such a nasty trick up their sleeves branches! Not only does this glucoside amygdalin protect the almond tree from potential predators (including us!) but it also safely attracts pollinating insects and harms potential predators… does anyone else detect a biotech innovation?

The ideal characteristics of the almond are made possible through a single recessive mutation in a gene that blocks the production of amygdalin. The simplicity of the difference between the two means genetic variation amongst wild and domesticated varieties continues today where a handful of individual trees will produce the opposite type of nut.

Almonds have been around awhile now, some 3200 years bp (in case you haven’t heard of bp that means before present and present = the 1950s when carbon dating came in vogue… I learn something new every day!) according to archaeological finds in Numeria, Jordan that included the remains of almond shells alongside other domesticated foods: wheat, barely, and parched grapes.

Almonds were ideal candidates for domestication because a tree is able to grow from the seed alone even before the invention of grafting practices. It’s funny how I am so far removed from horticultural practices that I never think of that as a problem, like people who are far removed from the farm don’t mind if it doesn’t rain hardly at all in the summer.

By domesticating the wild almond a new food source was established that would one day become a major agricultural product (and sundae topping!) we know and love today.








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