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An Ig Nobel Onion

BY Jonathan Strickland / POSTED September 17, 2013
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I love the Ig Nobel prizes. The tongue-in-cheek awards single out research that, upon first glance, seems preposterous. But after a little consideration, some of these apparently ludicrous studies have very real applications. Or, as they say in a much more succinct manner, the prizes award improbable research that first makes you laugh and then makes you think.

There are prizes in many fields. For example, this year’s prize in psychology went to a study that found people who think they are drunk also tend to think they are attractive. Note that distinction — it didn’t matter if the subjects were actually drunk, they only had to believe they had consumed alcohol. The drunker I think I am, the better I look.

But that’s not what I wanted to blog about. The specific award I want to discuss ties into our Future of Food episode. Haven’t seen it? It’s good. You should check it out. In that episode we mentioned transgenic crops and genetically modified organisms (GMOs). Using precise methods, we can alter the genes of an organism in an attempt to give it new properties — or take away undesirable ones.

The organism in the case of my favorite study is the noble onion. I am an onion fan. I love onions in lots of stuff — Philly cheesesteaks, pizza, chili. But what I don’t love is the ordeal I go through when I cut onions. Oh sure, it starts off innocently enough. A few slices and everything is grand. But then my eyes begin to sting and next thing you know I’m crying like it’s the end of “Return of the Jedi.”

If only someone could make an onion that wouldn’t Mace me in the face. And that’s where the study comes in. In Nature, researchers published a paper called “Plant biochemistry: An onion enzyme that makes the eyes water.” In this paper, the researchers identified the processes that create propanthial S-oxide — that’s what makes our eyes hurt when we’re cutting onions.

Previously, scientists believed that propanthial S-oxide came from two main ingredients. But the researchers showed that not to be the case — there was a third, unidentified factor. And so by filtering out various components that are in an onion, they identified a new enzyme. Combining this enzyme with the two previously identified ingredients created the evil mixture that makes our eyes sting.

This enzyme is triggered by a specific gene in onions. The researchers postulate that by turning off this gene, you’d end up with an onion that tastes like an onion, smells like an onion but doesn’t trigger tears like a typical onion. It might be a while before we get some of these magic onions in the produce section of the supermarket — like all GMOs, these onions will have to undergo extensive tests to determine their safety before they’ll hit our dinner plate.

Until then I will wait with anticipation, tears in my eyes.

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