Magazine article Science News

Truffle Genes Are Much Alike in the Dark

Magazine article Science News

Truffle Genes Are Much Alike in the Dark

Article excerpt

Are French black truffles better than Italian black truffles?

That's hardly a question to treat lightly, and a team of French scientists has brought the techniques of population genetics to bear on the underpinnings of the controversy.

Their conclusion may only inflame the debate, however. The black truffle, Tuber melanosporum, displays remarkably little genetic variation across its European range, report Guillaume Bertault from the University of Montpellier and his colleagues. The variation that does occur follows no geographic pattern. In the August 20 Nature, the researchers say that any regional difference in fragrance and flavor "probably results from environmental, rather than genetic, influences."

Small, earlier surveys had hinted at the low variability but had not explored regional patterns. Bertault's team checked 207 wild truffles from Italy and France for variation in 15 DNA sections. "We found a bit of everything everywhere," Bertault says.

Black truffles can command up to $900 a pound retail. "Yes, we did eat some," Bertault admits. "That's the advantage of molecular biology: You need only a very small amount of biological material."

The genetic picture suggests that about 10,000 years ago, the truffle endured a population bottleneck, a massive die-off that left only a few survivors to repopulate the range, the researchers say. The disaster that nearly wiped out the black truffle could have been the last glacial period, which ended a little more than 10,000 years ago. …

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