High-tech genomics and traditional Chinese medicine come together as researchers identify the genes responsible for the intense bitter taste of wild cucumbers. Taming this bitterness made cucumber, pumpkin, and their relatives into popular foods, but the same compounds also have potential to treat cancer and diabetes. "You don't eat wild cucumber, unless you want to use it as a purgative," said Dr. William Lucas, professor of plant biology at the University of California, Davis, and coauthor on the article published in the November 28, 2014 issue of Science. That bitter flavor in wild cucurbits -- the family that includes cucumber, pumpkin, melon, watermelon, and squash -- is due to compounds called cucurbitacins. The bitter taste protects wild plants against predators. The fruit and leaves of wild cucurbits have been used in Indian and Chinese medicine for thousands of years, as emetics and purgatives, and to treat liver disease. More recently, researchers have shown that cucurbitacins can kill or suppress growth of cancer cells. Bitterness is known to be controlled by two genetic traits, "Bi" which confers bitterness on the whole plant and "Bt", which leads to bitter fruit. In the new work, Dr. Lucas, Dr. Sanwen Huang at the Chinese Academy of Agricultural Sciences, and colleagues employed the latest in DNA sequencing technology to identify the exact changes in DNA associated with bitterness. They also tasted a great many cucumbers. "Luckily this is an easy trait to test for," Dr. Lucas said.
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