Pumpkin's Great Great Grandfather Discovered

Oh hey there, Cousin Cucumber!

By Ethan L. Johns
September 29, 2017

Image: Getty

What a fascinating thing evolution is! Imagine: at some point between 107 and 118 million years ago, a pumpkin, a watermelon and a cucumber were all exactly the same thing.

While it is known that these juicy fruits belong to the same family—which goes by the name of Cucurbitaceae—only recently were scientists able to actually trace the origins of each fruit back to one divergent moment, where their common ancestor branched off into separate species.

According to the study in the journal of Molecular Biology and Evolution, watermelon left its cucumber and melon brothers around 25 million years ago, while cucumber and melon split up somewhere around 15 million years ago. Thank goodness for family feuds, in this case; otherwise we’d just be eating pumpkin all year ‘round!

Of course, leaving a plant family is not nearly as simple as it was for Uncle Harry to leave Aunt Gertrude when he realized that it was really she who keyed his ‘64 Mustang that day at the state fair.

The scientists behind the study scoured the chromosomes of these modern fruits, hoping to find patterns that would tell them when exactly the family tree separated. The branching off can be explained by reproductive events which cause a plant’s genetic material to duplicate (what they call tetraploidization). Over time, the various copies of the same original plant lose genes and develop different characteristics, gradually becoming different fruits.

So the next time you crack open a pumpkin-flavored brew, or mix up a Hendrick’s and tonic with cucumber, raise that glass and toast to tetraploidization. Or if you can’t pronounce that, just enjoy the bounties of evolution.

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About Ethan L. Johns

Ethan is the Food News Writer at Genius Kitchen. An expert on the Parisian bistrot, he likes bitters and salted butters, and is no fan of dessert unless it's made with fruit. His hobbies include reading up on the history of borscht and attempting to roll perfect couscous by hand. Twits & Instagram @EthanLJohns